California is dealing with more than a dozen large wildfires that are burning the state’s forest, grass, and brush on an even larger scale than last year. The drought over the previous two years is also exacerbating the damage of this summer’s fires.
Among the currently harshest fires are Dixie and Caldor.
The Dixie Fire, the largest currently burning and second-biggest on record wiped out the historic town of Greenville and continues to threaten thousands of homes about 175 miles northeast of San Francisco.
The Caldor Fire, burning about 100 miles to the south, blew up since Aug. 14, torching parts of the hamlet of Grizzly Flat, and is currently chewing through dense forest.
Last week, the Dixie Fire forced more evacuation orders, and the Caldor Fire shut down Highway 50.
California’s wildfires spread smoke to the East Coast, with flames wiping out a gold rush-era town decimating an area that would dwarf Rhode Island.
The wildfires have so far this year burned approximately 2,300 square miles, or some 6,000 square kilometers, mainly in northern California.
That area has already surpassed the recorded acreage burned at this point last year. But experts warned that the worst may be yet to come as it is now entering a period when powerful winds have often driven the deadliest blazes.
“Here we are—it’s not the end of August and the size and distribution and the destruction of summer 2021 wildfires does not bode well for the next months,” said Bill Deverell, a history professor. He teaches about fires at the University of Southern California. “The suggestion of patterns across the last two decades in the West is deeply unsettling and worrisome: hotter, bigger, more fires.”
In addition, there are several extreme behaviors from the fires this year. Embers carried miles by gusts ignite vegetation ripe for burning in rugged landscapes, where it is hard to attack or prevent it from spreading.
Fires, which cooled down at night in the past, now sometimes surge miles in the dark.
Gusts and low humidity are also forecast to expand the blaze.
California’s retired fire chief John Hawkins said he had not seen such explosive fire behaviors in 58 fire seasons.
“The Harlow Fire of 1961 was one of a kind in its day. As we draw a comparison today, it’s not one of a kind, it’s one after another. Something has changed,” Hawkins said, adding that he saw similarly rapid growth in the Caldor Fire.
“It wasn’t a slow deal,” Hawkins said. “When you see one of those develop that fast in heavy timber and already see another dozen fires in California running crazy it doesn’t take much to light your lightbulb or ring your bell.”
Thirteen of the state’s most destructive wildfires in the top 20 have burned in the last four years. The largest fire, the August Complex, began a year ago this week. The deadliest and most destructive, the Camp Fire, killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings in Nov. 2018.
In the past, forest fires were dominant in late summer, and fires in the fall burned in chaparral and woodlands, driven by dry winds created by high pressure over the Great Basin.
The Deputy regional forester for the Forest Service, Anthony Scardina, forecast that large fires in the north could burn into early December, while in the south, September fires could last to the end of the year.
“The current models we have for how fires are going to behave don’t cover this because it’s just off the charts. It’s hazardous to firefighters and hard as hell to predict what it’s going to do,” North said.