Staggering Scale of California Wildfire Season Continues to Grow

FILE – In this Sept. 16, 2020 file photo the August Complex Fire burns near Lake Pillsbury in the Mendocino National Forest, Calif. The epic scale of California’s wildfires has reached another milestone. The new mark for the August Complex Fire in the Coast Range between San Francisco and the Oregon state line on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, surpassed 1 million acres. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

(CN) — A wildfire burning in Northern California has now consumed more than 1 million acres while over 4 million acres in the Golden State have been scorched during this historic wildfire season — two grim milestones reached Monday. 

The size of Northern California’s August Complex alone exceeds that of all the forest fires that burned in the state between 1932 and 1999, California Governor Gavin Newsom said Monday.

“If that’s not proof point, testament, to climate change, then I don’t know what is,” he said.

Approximately 8,300 wildfires sparked throughout the state so far in 2020, with 23 of those turning into major wildfires. To date, fires have killed 31 people and destroyed more than 8,000 homes and businesses throughout the state, including famed wineries, historic general stores and three-star Michelin restaurants. 

“Yesterday, firefighters also responded to 26 new wildfires, bringing full containment to all but one, the Lambert Fire in Amador County,” Cal Fire said in a Monday morning statement.

The August Complex began as several different fires set by a lightning storm in mid-August. The fires burned separately but joined together into one large forest fire in mid-September, when it became the largest fire in state history. 

As of Monday, the blaze has blackened 1,500 square miles. 

The historic wildfire season has prompted a debate about the causes, with Newsom and others pointing the finger at climate change. President Donald Trump, who visited the state in September, calls for better forest management.

Numerous studies say the rise in greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil has caused a long-term alteration in weather patterns. In California, the winters have gotten shorter and drier, meaning much of the shrubs and trees in the state’s forest are more susceptible to sparks and other fire starters. 

Vince Tofanelli, who fled his winery in Napa Valley last week due to the Glass Fire, said he has noticed an uptick in heat waves and drier weather. He said his vines have adjusted but the surrounding forests have not. 

“I’ve farmed this vineyard for the last 50 years and I can tell you it’s climate change,” Tofanelli said.

However, fire officials also acknowledge more active forest management needs to occur to stave off the annual onslaught of fires in the state’s forests, which cripples mountain communities and kills Californians. 

Daniel Ramey, a public information officer on the Creek Fire burning in Fresno and Madera counties, said there were several communities near Shaver Lake that were saved due to defensible space work performed in the past several years. 

“It makes a difference,” he said. 

While California has allocated significant funds for forest-thinning projects and clearing out underbrush, the federal government manages approximately 57% of the state’s forests. 

The August Complex was listed at 54% containment Monday, a good indication firefighters are gaining the upper hand. The complex killed one firefighter, severely injured another and has burnt 149 strcutures. 

Firefighters have also made progress on the Creek Fire, managing about 48% containment on Monday. That fire has burned about 320,000 acres and destroyed about 850 structures. 

The Glass Fire burning in Napa and Solana counties is at 60,000 acres with about 30% containment, a significant improvement from last week. While California remains hot and dry many of the gusty winds that fueled fires in August and September have abated and the weather forecast calls for a chance of rain moving into Northern California on Friday and Saturday.

However, October is historically one of the worst months for wildfire in California, so fire officials are cautioning residents to remain vigilant. 

Five of the six largest wildfires in state history started in the summer of 2020. 

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