Describing California’s wildfires means running out of modifiers, adjectives and apocalyptic images. There are no more words. 

The state’s fires have become so unpredictable and extreme that new words were invented: firenado, gigafire, fire siege — even fire pandemic.

The landscape is getting hotter, and sooner, in more places. And it’s drier, for longer, all over the state. California now has 78 more annual “fire days” — when conditions are ripe for fires to spark — than 50 years ago. When is California’s wildfire season? It is now almost year-round.

Nothing is as it was. Where are the worst California wildfires? All over. Whatever NIMBYism that gave comfort to some Californians — never having a fire in their community before — no longer applies. 

For instance, Southern California’s coastal fires typically had to be driven by desert winds. But no longer. Vegetation along the usually moist coast is so parched that it doesn’t need Santa Ana winds to fan wildfires. 

The summer of 2022 got off to a deadly start. The McKinney Fire killed four people, and more than 181,00 acres had been torched by the start of August. And lightning strikes touched off a complex of 12 fires in a densely forested region of northern California. A large wildfire, the Route Fire, ignited in northern Los Angeles County and has closed I-5, and another fire, the Border 32 fire, is burning in rural eastern San Diego County near the border with Mexico.

Recent years have been particularly severe: 2020 was an extreme year. And in 2021, the state’s oldest park, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, was nearly erased by a fire that destroyed roads, bridges, campsites, trails, the visitor center, restrooms and electrical and water systems.

California’s so-called ‘asbestos forests’ have lost their immunity. Massive fires tore through dense, moist rainforests where climate change chased away the region’s protective layer of fog and mist. 

What causes California’s wildfires? Arson and power lines are the major triggers. An audit showed that utilities aren’t doing enough to prevent fires. But lightning-sparked fires, like the one that burned Big Basin park, are a fairly recent trend.

Unpredictable and hugely powerful lightning storms — tens of thousands of strikes in a span of days — bombard already dry and vulnerable trees. Scientists say to expect more lightning as the planet warms. Aided and abetted by drought, more than 163 million trees have been killed by drought or insects.

Jaw-dropping “fire tornadoes” spin out from the intense heat thrown off by monster fires, bedeviling crews who can only flee from a 300-foot wall of flames.

The job of battling these larger, more stubborn California wildfires has become more complicated, fearsome and deadly, straining the state’s already overworked firefighters.

And much, much more costly. The Legislative Analyst’s Office provided this sobering calculation: CalFire’s total funding for fire protection, resource management and fire prevention has grown from $800 million in 2005-06 to an estimated $3.7 billion in 2021-22.

As the impacts and costs surge, homeowners are still finding that insurance companies are canceling their policies — even if they fire-harden their property.

More attention is being paid to the unhealthy smoke lingering in communities. Even California’s crops are harmed, with concerns about a smoke- tainted grape harvest and impacting the state’s $58 billion wine industry.

Scientists and fire bosses are moving away from all-out suppression of every fire to understanding that fire can be harnessed as a tool. The benefits of fire, long part of the culture of native Californians, are now part of the state’s planning.

After all, California’s landscape evolved with fire. What remains is for its inhabitants to adapt to the new reality.

And that requires yet another new term: Welcome to the ‘Pyrocene’, coined by fire scientist Stephen J.Pyne. The age of fire.

Lives lost

Wildfires took scores of lives in California in 2018, the deadliest fire year in the state’s recent history. Most of those deaths were related to the blaze that destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise. The numbers include people responding to the fires.

More homes at risk

California’s bigger, more frequent fires are endangering more residents—nearly 90 perished in the 2018 blaze that destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise. Forest fires are increasingly a misnomer as flames race across landscapes dotted with subdivisions and communities that have been carved out where trees once stood.

The trend of more Californians living in harm’s way complicates firefighting efforts—and ramps up the danger fires pose.

Epidemic of dead trees

California’s forests, which cover a third of the state, are now choked with nearly 163 million dead trees.

Weakened by a prolonged drought, which scientists link to climate change, California’s ubiquitous pines and oaks are vulnerable to insect infestation and disease. Those giants crash to the forest floor and, unless they are removed, provide ready fodder for the next voracious fire. The die-off is catastrophic, beyond the reach of state foresters to remedy.

In many communities of the central and southern Sierra Nevada mountain range, “80% of trees are dead,” said Ken Pimlott, former director of Cal Fire.

Fire-prone federal forests

The state owns only about 3% of California’s wooded acreage. Some land is owned by cities, counties, Native American tribes and private holders. Former President Trump criticized California’s fire management:

But in fact, the biggest forest landlord in California, by far, is the federal government, which manages 18 national forests in the state.

The U.S. Forest Service has a longtime policy of putting out every fire, and quickly, which has packed the federal land with fuel to burn. And its budget falls short of the cost of needed work to reduce that fuel.

If a burned-out forest is replaced by chaparral or brush, that landscape loses more than 90 percent of its capacity to take in and store carbon.

How do climate change and drought affect wildfires?

A warming climate complicates everything. Hotter and drier seasons mean that big fires in December, once almost unheard of, are now common.

In earlier decades, fires late in the year might have sputtered out after hitting hillsides wet with winter rain. More recent blazes feasted on vegetation that has been sucked of moisture by persistent drought.

Even years of plentiful rain harbor dangers. Post-fire precipitation, especially very wet winters, can usher in the growth of non-native shrubs and grasses that burn quickly and spread fires faster than native species.

Wildfires contribute to climate change

No state has done as much as California to reduce its output of planet-warming greenhouse gases. Yet the smoke produced by major fires is so potent that a single weeks-long blaze can undo a year’s worth of carbon-reduction efforts. State officials are concerned that what’s pumped into the air during fires could impair California’s ability to reach its stringent greenhouse-gas reduction goals.

A single wildfire can spew more pollutants into the air than millions of cars. Moreover, as more trees die, another weapon to combat climate change is lost: the prodigious ability of healthy trees to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. That process is reversed if the trees burn.

Poor air quality from wildfires

When fires burn in uninhabited wildlands, their corrosive effects can be carried hundreds of miles by the wind, causing stinging eyes, burning throats and severe coughing.

Local air districts issue warnings to residents to wear masks and avoid outside exercise. Hospital emergency rooms report increased numbers of patients seeking help for respiratory problems, and school closures can keep as many as a million children home as even indoor air quality deteriorates.

The lingering villain: black carbon

Trees release a powerful pollutant, black carbon, as they burn. Black carbon is many thousand times more damaging than greenhouse gases. And the damage doesn’t cease once flames are snuffed out; decaying forests continue to emit harmful pollutants.

If a burned-out forest is replaced by chaparral or brush, that landscape loses more than 90 percent of its capacity to take in and retain carbon.

Erosion danger

Map created by Robert Szucs via grasshoppergeography.com
Map depicting California's natural drainage system, created by Robert Szucs via grasshoppergeography.com

When fires rage in California’s mountains, the system that stores and cleans water, feeds streams and rivers, supports fish and other wildlife and literally holds the hillsides together burns up.

Forests are watersheds, a critical component of California’s water supply.

  • Trees hold water in their limbs, roots and soil and draw it into underground aquifers, a source of drinking water.
  • Meadows on lower slopes filter and clean water.
  • Tree loss after fires fosters soil erosion; the runoff clogs waterways.
  • Unstable hills can threaten public safety with landslides and mudslides.

How to prevent wildfires

California’s wildfire season is essentially year-round now. And with wildfires expected to get worse, residents, utilities and the state play a role in minimizing the impact of the wildfire seasons.

Residents

Residents have a responsibility to create a defensible space around their property and “harden” homes to make them fire resistant.

California law requires creating a buffer by clearing out trees, brush and grass within 100 feet around homes in wildfire-affected areas. Fire officials say it can increase the likelihood of a house surviving a wildfire eight-fold. In addition, homes with wood or shingle roofs are at high risk of being destroyed. Consider materials such as composition, metal or tile.

Utilities

Investor-owned utilities must prepare wildfire mitigation plans that describe what they are doing to prevent, combat and respond to wildfires. The three largest utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric, all plan to spend billions clearing brush and trees away from transmission lines, insulate or underground power lines, install or maintain a network of remote cameras and weather stations to detect wind, smoke and other dangers.

But a state audit found that some of the wildfire plans were “seriously deficient” and concluded that state officials are failing to hold California’s electric utilities accountable for preventing fires caused by their equipment. The report to the California Legislature found that the new Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety approved utility companies’ wildfire prevention plans even when they were “seriously deficient.” 

PG&E and SCE are now following in the footsteps of SDG&E in expanding the use of public safety power shutoffs, also known as de-energization. The practice of shutting off electric power during dangerous weather conditions is viewed as a public-safety measure of last resort because it can cut off internet access and make communication difficult for hospitals, firefighters and emergency personnel.

The state

On March 22, 2019, Gov. Newsom declared a wildfire state of emergency for California and waived environmental regulations to speed up forest management projects aimed at reducing the fuel load for the upcoming wildfire season. By removing dead trees or clearing brush, the programs aim to reduce the threat of wildfires by creating fuel breaks, defensible space and safe travel corridors around vulnerable communities.

Some environmental groups, however, question whether logging would damage ecosystems and suggest it’s more effective to clear vegetation around homes.

What plants are fire-prone?

It has to be said that fires are not always bad. Naturally occurring fires clear overgrown forests, creating space for some plants and trees to revitalize. Researchers say less-dense forests are more natural and healthy.

But more often in California, wildfires ignite a furious competition for life. Fast-growing and opportunistic non-native plants rush in after fires, with the potential to wholly supplant native species. This phenomenon doesn’t just erase an aspect of California’s botanical history; it affects its fire future. Invasive grasses and weeds often burn more readily, fanning hotter and more frequent fires.

What do wildfires cost the state?

Not surprisingly, the wildfire tab is growing.

The state routinely exceeds projected fire suppression costs. In 2018, California spent nearly $1 billion on fire suppression and emergency response, surpassing the budgeted $450 million. Put another way: CalFire’s total funding for fire protection, resource management and fire prevention has grown from $800 million in 2005-06 to an estimated $3.7 billion in 2021-22.

In years of exceptional fire activity, the cost to suppress them can drain California’s emergency fund: in 2020 an estimated $1.76 billion was pulled from the contingency coffers.

Advanced firefighting tools that the state relies on don’t come cheap. Cal Fire boasts one of the largest, if not the largest, firefighting air fleets in the world, including S-2T air tankers and Huey helicopters. The state has started upgrading the Hueys to specially retrofitted Black Hawk firefighting helicopters and will add C-130 Hercules cargo planes. 

And rather than waiting to respond to a wildfire, emergency personnel have shifted to pre-positioning strike teams before a fire even starts. It’s a strategy that costs more.

Big losses, rising insurance rates and canceled policies

Insurance in fire-prone areas is expensive. According to the state FireSafe Council, it costs more than $1,500 a year to insure a home in Los Angeles worth at least $400,000.

The RAND Corp. found the average premium for high-risk areas increased 15% between 2007 and 2014 in a portion of San Bernardino County. It rose 12% in the same period in the Sierra Foothills east of Sacramento. The Santa Monica-based nonprofit research firm conducted the study as part of California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment and was funded by the California Natural Resources Agency.

RAND researcher Lloyd Dixon found the higher prices were influencing purchasing patterns: Policyholders are buying less coverage, low-balling the cost to fully replace their belongings and tending to elect higher deductibles.

The number of Californians who are not renewed by their insurance companies each year increased in 2019, according to insurance department data, after especially damaging wildfires in 2017 and 2018. It’s a small share of policyholders: less than 3%, according to the department. The numbers are higher in areas with greater fire risk.

A December 2017 survey by the California Department of Insurance found an uptick in renewal complaints in areas designated by Cal Fire as having the greatest risk of wildfire. The department received 41 complaints in 2010 but 143 in 2016. And the insurance department found that insurer-initiated cancellations went up from 8,796 in 2015 in high fire areas to 10,151 in 2016.

How power lines cause wildfires

Hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines and other electrical equipment are strung across California, drawing little attention—until authorities name utility equipment as the cause of a wildfire. One in 10 California wildfires is related to energy equipment, according to the state’s chief utility regulator.

Lawmakers have ordered that utility companies put safety measures in place, hoping to ensure that their equipment won’t spark future fires. Among the firms’ strategies: more aggressively clearing brush and trees around transmission lines; swapping wooden power poles for metal ones; maintaining a network of remote cameras to keep watch on wind, smoke and other dangers; and preemptively shutting down the power when conditions are windy and dry.

None of these or other fire-mitigation efforts will come cheaply. Early estimates place the cumulative economic cost of Pacific Gas & Electric’s huge 2019 blackout in Northern California at up to $2.5 billion. When a judge proposed sweeping new safety measures for PG&E, the company said the work could cost an eye-popping $150 billion. And consumers can be expected to foot much of the fire-mitigation bill as utility companies pass costs along to them.

Restrictions on where and how to build

Even when fires threaten homes and no help is in sight, all is not lost. There is much homeowners can do to prepare and protect their property in the face of wildfire, beginning with  clearing trees, brush and wood piles around their houses,.

The manner of construction and the types of materials used can help give structures a fighting chance against the advance of flames. California building codes for new homes require forgoing wooden roofs and decks in favor of fire-resistant materials, among other things.

Among the actions homeowners can take to protect their property:

  • Install double-paned windows.
  • Detach garages and storage sheds from the main house.
  • Put ember-resistant vents in attics and elsewhere.
  • Consider fire-resistant cladding such as stucco or stone.

There are, however, some places where the risk is so great that fire scientists say homes simply should not be built there—even in a state where housing shortages have reached crisis levels. In California from 1990 to 2010, an estimated 45% of new housing units were constructed in the “wildland-urban interface”—where suburbia and rural towns back up onto wild, and combustible, landscapes. With more residences sprouting on the edge of wildlands or deep in narrow canyons, fires become an inevitability and firefighters have a tougher and larger territory to defend.

What to do? State lawmakers have already extended some state restrictions to local lands, and some have talked about possible rebates or other subsidies for residents who cannot afford to “harden” their homes. But essentially legislators are grappling with an unpalatable reality: Require even more extensive and expensive upgrades to existing homes, or ban building altogether in some areas. That discussion is as potentially explosive as the fires themselves. DONATE NOW

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Julie Cart joined CalMatters as a projects and environment reporter in 2016 after a long career at the Los Angeles Times, where she held many positions: sportswriter, national correspondent and environment...