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One of every eight acres in California has burned during the last 10 years

by Paul Rogers and Paiching Wei, Bay Area News Group |

If it seems like wildfires in California are getting larger, they are. Nine of the state’s 10 largest wildfires since 1932, when modern records began, have occurred in the past decade. And amazingly, the eight largest have all burned since 2017.

“It’s a combination of everything — climate change, decades of fire suppression and drought,” said Craig Clements, director of San Jose State University’s Fire Weather Lab.

Some fire experts call them “megafires,” blazes larger than 100,000 acres that once were rare but are becoming increasingly common.

“I think this trend is going to continue,” Clements said. “There’s a lot of area that can still burn.”

A century of fire suppression has left forests in many areas thick with brush and dead trees. When fires start, either from lightning, downed power lines or other causes, they burn much bigger and hotter than they historically would have because there haven’t been regular fires to thin out the landscape.

On top of that, California endured a severe drought from 2012 to 2016, and entered a new one last year. The past two years have been the driest in Northern California since 1976-77.

The lack of rain and snow has left vegetation dangerously dry. Add to that, climate change is causing hotter temperatures, particularly at night, a time when firefighters in the past could gain the upper hand. Hotter temperatures are melting snow and causing dry conditions — fire season — to last longer. Meanwhile, more people are moving into fire-prone areas, increasing the risk of ignitions.

Over the past 10 years, back to 2012, a total of 12.7 million acres has burned in California. That’s 1 of every 8 acres in the state. And it’s double the 6.4 million acres that burned in California during the previous decade.

Fires are often burning hotter, and with larger flame lengths. That’s making them harder to put out.

“We are seeing such extreme conditions that a lot of the old tactics aren’t working as effectively,” said Clay Jordan, superintendent of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, at a community briefing Monday on the KNP Complex Fire, which has burned 48,000 acres in the park and is just 8 percent contained.

Another month or two of fire season remains in most of the state, including the Bay Area, before November rains are expected to reduce the risk.

The second-largest fire in state history, the Dixie fire, began July 13 near Chico and is still burning. At more than 960,000 acres, it’s three times the size of the city of Los Angeles and eight times the size of San Jose. The good news? That fire, which has destroyed 1,329 structures in Butte, Plumas, Shasta, Tehama and Lassen counties, on Tuesday was 94 percent contained.

Historically, October has been among the most dangerous months for wildfire in California. Vegetation is the driest, and winds blowing from the east toward the ocean — called Santa Ana winds in Southern California and Diablo Winds in Northern California — increase the spread of fire.

The solution is more prescribed burns during wetter months, and more mechanical thinning, said Clements. By some estimates, 20 million acres need to be treated, which will take years.

“I think it’s the only solution,” Clements said.

In Marin, the newly created Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority has more than $1.1 million in state grant money earmarked to clear overgrown, fire-prone vegetation, and about $1 million for removing invasive broom on Mount Tamalpais watershed lands managed by Marin Municipal Water District.

While burning to prevent fire is not new in Marin, the practice faces some skepticism, fire officials said. Fear that prescribed burns will roar out of control or fill the skies with noxious smoke have motivated the authority to begin educating the community, said Mark Brown, executive officer of the authority.

“The idea of putting fire on the ground really scares them,” he said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new state budget, which he signed last week, has $1.5 billion for wildfire prevention.

Much of that money is to expand forest-thinning, cut fuel breaks and conduct prescribed fire projects on state lands, along with grants to help private land owners and local governments reduce fire risk. There is also funding to increase the number of Cal Fire inspectors and pay for more wildfire research and detection technology.

The federal government owns 57 percent of the forests in California, while the state owns 3 percent and private landowners own 40 percent. Newsom called on Congress to appropriate more money for forest thinning and prescribed fires in the West, and to take more action expanding renewable energy and addressing the causes of climate change.

A $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed the U.S. Senate in August on a bipartisan 69-30 vote. It faces a key vote in the House this week. The bill has $8 billion for wildfire risk reduction, forest thinning and restoration, and raises the pay of federal firefighters, who make as little as $13 an hour.

“This is real,” Newsom said, asking for more federal help, while he stood in Sequoia National Park as firefighters battled flames only a few miles away. “We need you to put down the swords, rhetorically and otherwise. Get the damn job done. Support the state, our nation, your national forests. Support your kids and grandkids. Protect lifestyles, memories, and places, communities.”