California announces end of ‘peak fire season’ after subdued year

The US state’s latest season bucks climate change-induced trend of wildfires that have grown in scope and intensity.

Firefighters in California
Firefighters battle the Mosquito Fire, California's largest blaze of 2022, in September [File: Noah Berger/AP Photo]

Los Angeles, California – After years of record-setting blazes in the US state of California, the 2022 wildfire season was notable for a different reason: It was relatively subdued.

Governor Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) marked the end of “peak fire season” by touting “a significant reduction in acres burned and structures damaged or destroyed this past year compared to years past”.

Newsom credited “record investments” in wildfire resources for helping to control this year’s wildfires. California has allocated $2.8m to “wildfire resilience” in the past two years alone.

Still, wildfires in the state have consumed more than 1,460sq km (565sq miles) of land, destroyed nearly 800 structures and killed nine civilians so far in 2022.

And the potential for fire remains significant, particularly in southern California, where CAL FIRE predicts a later start to the rainy season as the region contends with drought. The state is currently in the middle of the driest three-year period on record.

Newsom, who was recently re-elected, said his first term as governor has been marked by “two of the most destructive wildfire seasons in recorded history and two of the least destructive in a decade”.

“There’s no better representation of how volatile fire seasons can be,” he said.

While fires have become a year-round phenomenon in California, the most intense activity typically takes place during the hottest months of the year from late spring through October. The fire risk drops as temperatures fall and rainfall rises.

A seven-day forecast of California’s fire risk by the National Interagency Fire Center showed that every region of the state was deemed “low risk” or “little or no risk” of fires as of Monday.

Unexpectedly quiet

Fire has become a regular feature of life in California as climate change pairs with overgrown forests to fuel blazes that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. Of the 10 largest fires in state history, seven have occurred since 2017.

The 2020 season was the largest wildfire season recorded in California’s modern history. More than 17,000sq km (6,565sq miles) and 11,116 structures burned. The fire season in 2021 continued to present “unprecedented” conditions with nearly 10,400sq km (more than 4,000sq miles) destroyed. That year, a single record-setting blaze, the Dixie Fire, burned an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Many experts said they believed the 2022 season would continue the trend. Instead, fires burned more than 8,000sq km (3,000sq miles) less than in 2021.

Scott Stephens, a professor of fire sciences at the University of California at Berkeley, told Al Jazeera that a number of factors contributed to the comparatively tame fire season.

They include fewer lightning storms and a lack of strong wind during a grueling heatwave that enveloped California in September, a month that frequently sees high levels of fire activity.

Stephens noted that the state also allocated more resources to tackling fires soon after they break out, when they can be easier to contain.

Creating more sustainable ecosystems will also play a key role in dealing with wildfires, Stephens said. He pointed to the rising popularity of tactics like setting controlled fires designed to thin overgrown forests as a “step in the right direction”.

But he added that such efforts need to grow substantially to hit the state’s goals, which include using natural resource management to prevent fires.

‘Not enough action’

California’s 2022 fire season still saw a number of deadly outbreaks, although none surpassed 400sq km (150sq miles) for the first time in several years.

In August, the McKinney Fire reached more than 240sq km (nearly 100sq miles), prompting evacuation orders for thousands of people and killing four, according to CAL FIRE.

July’s Oak Fire, which resulted in a state of emergency in Maricopa County and forced thousands to flee, took place on the doorstep of Yosemite National Park, one of the state’s most popular national parks.

September’s heatwave exacerbated fire conditions, and firefighters reportedly suffered heatstroke on the job. The Mosquito Fire, the largest of the season, grew to more than 300sq km (nearly 120sq miles) with the help of high temperatures that month.

CAL FIRE said it has completed “20,000 acres [more than 80sq km] of prevention and mitigation projects” over the past two months, taking advantage of fewer fires to prepare for the future.

The state’s firefighting workforce, however, is suffering from staffing problems as workers struggle with the growing demands of intense fire seasons, paired with low pay and long shifts.

Without a more robust workforce, the prevention and mitigation work will be difficult to scale up, Stephens warned.

“The big question is whether we’re making enough progress,” Stephens said. “There are great intentions but still not enough action.”

Source: Al Jazeera