Los Angeles, California — After years of record-breaking fires in the US state of California, the 2022 wildfire season was remarkable for another reason: It was relatively subdued.
Governor Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Forest and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) announced the end of “peak fire season” by promoting “a significant reduction in burned acres and damaged or destroyed buildings over the past year compared to previous years.”
Newsom attributed “record investments” in wildfire resources to helping combat this year’s wildfires. California has provided $2.8 million for “wildfire resilience” in the last two years alone.
Yet wildfires in the state in 2022 have consumed more than 1,460 square kilometers (565 square miles) of land, destroyed nearly 800 buildings and killed nine civilians.
And the fire potential remains significant, particularly in Southern California, where CAL FIRE predicts a later start of the rainy season as the region struggles with drought. The state is currently in the middle of the driest three-year period ever.
Newsom, who was recently re-elected, said his first term as governor was marked by “two of the most destructive wildfire seasons in recorded history and two of the least destructive in a decade.”
“There is no better picture of how volatile fire seasons can be,” he said.
While fires have become a year-round phenomenon in California, the strongest activity typically takes place in the hottest months of the year, from late spring to October. The risk of fire decreases when temperatures drop and rainfall rises.
A seven-day forecast from the National Interagency Fire Center on fire risk in California found that every region of the state was rated as “low risk” or “low or no fire risk” on Monday.
Fire has become an integral part of life in California, as climate change, along with overgrown forests, is fueling flames 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 biggest wildfire season in California’s modern history. More than 17,000 square kilometers (6,565 square miles) and 11,116 buildings burned down. The 2021 fire season continued to offer “unprecedented” conditions, with nearly 10,400 square kilometers (more than 4,000 square miles) destroyed. This year, a single record fire, the Dixie Fire, burned down an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Many experts believed the 2022 season would continue the trend. Instead, fires burned more than 8,000 square kilometers (3,000 square miles) less than in 2021.
Scott Stephens, a professor of fire sciences at the University of California at Berkeley, told CNN Breaking News that a number of factors have contributed to the comparatively tame fire season.
This includes fewer thunderstorms and a lack of strong winds during a grueling heat wave that surrounded California in September, a month that often sees high levels of fire activity.
Stephens noted that even soon after they broke out, the state has dedicated more resources to fighting fires when they are easier to contain.
Creating more sustainable ecosystems will also play an important role in fighting wildfires, Stephens said. He pointed to the increasing popularity of tactics such as setting controlled fires to thin overgrown forests as a “step in the right direction.”
But he added that these efforts must increase significantly to meet the state’s goals, which include using natural resources to prevent fires.
“Not enough action”
the 2022 fire season in California, there were still a number of deadly outbreaks, although none exceeded 400 square kilometers (150 square miles) for the first time in several years.
In August, the McKinney fire reached more than 240 square kilometers (almost 100 square miles), which, according to CAL FIRE, led to evacuation orders for thousands of people and killed four people.
The Oak Fire in July, which set off a state of emergency in Maricopa County and forced thousands to flee, took place just outside Yosemite National Park, one of the state’s most popular national parks.
The heat wave in September aggravated fire conditions, and firefighters reportedly suffered heatstroke at work. The mosquito fire, the biggest of the season, grew to more than 300 square kilometers (almost 120 square miles) as a result of the high temperatures this month.
CAL FIRE has completed “20,000 hectares [more than 80 square kilometers] of prevention and mitigation projects in the last two months, using fewer fires to prepare for the future.
However, state firefighters are suffering from staffing issues as workers struggle with the growing demands of intense fire times, paired with low pay and long shifts.
Without a more robust workforce, it will be difficult to expand prevention and mitigation measures, Stephens warned.
“The big question is whether we’re making enough progress,” said Stephens. “There are big intentions, but still not enough action.”