Wildfires Destroy a Record 3.1 Million Acres Across California

Flames lick above vehicles on Highway 162 as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, Calif., on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

(CN) — California eclipsed another milestone in its ruinous and historic wildfire season as officials on Thursday announced a record 3.1 million acres have already burned in 2020. 

Over 7,300 wildfires have burned a scar larger than the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, smashing the previous record of 1.8 million acres set during the state’s tragic 2018 season. 

The massive total has been buoyed by a handful of the largest infernos in state history, which continue to burn simultaneously throughout the Golden State. 

While the ferocious winds that jump started wildfires along the entire West Coast earlier this week have calmed, California firefighters are struggling to contain two wildfires that have already destroyed over 2,300 homes and buildings.

Burning near the scar of the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive blaze in state history, the Bear Fire continues to threaten the foothill communities near Lake Oroville. The fire is part of the North Complex, which has burned 247,000 acres and destroyed at least 2,000 structures in Plumas, Yuba and Butte counties. Officials said Thursday evening the Bear Fire has killed 10, with 16 still missing.

Sparked by a dry-lightning storm in mid-August, the North Complex is already the 10th largest wildfire in California’s history dating back to 1932. According to the U.S. Forest Service in charge of the incident, the complex is just 23% contained and critical fire conditions could return to the area by Sunday. 

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said the weeks-old fire was invigorated by high winds on Tuesday and spread toward homes near Lake Oroville. He said the fire has killed at least three people in recent days.

“This fire was able to make a significant run down the middle fork of the Feather River and go very, very quickly into the communities,” Berlant said in an update. “This right now is one of the main focuses as there are so many structures still threatened by this blaze.”

Over 300 miles south in Fresno County, the Creek Fire has grown to 175,000 acres in less than a week. Now the 17th largest in state history, the blaze churning through the Sierra National Forest has exhibited stunning behavior and produced traumatic escapes.

On Sept. 5, the supercharged fire produced enough heat and smoke to send a massive plume miles into the air that was spotted by commercial airline passengers and NASA satellites. The dense clouds, known as a pyrocumulonimbus, have been dubbed by NASA as the “fire-breathing dragon of clouds” and can resemble an atomic explosion.

“The pyrocumulonimbus cloud created aerosol index values indicate that this is one of the largest (if not the largest) pyroCb events seen in the United States,” said Dr. Colin Seftor, NASA atmospheric scientist.

The Creek Fire started Friday evening and has already burned over 175,000 acres across three counties, making a 15-mile run in a single day. Hundreds of campers and residents have been airlifted from the blaze in recent days by the California National Guard, and as of Thursday the fire remains completely uncontained.

The litany of fires has forced the total closure of all 18 national forests located in the state for the first time. Since the beginning of the year, nearly 4,000 structures have been destroyed.

Overall, 14,000 firefighters are battling six of the top 20 largest fires in state history in the Creek, North Complex, the August Complex ( the largest on record at 471,000 acres), SCU Complex (396,000), LNU Complex (363,000) and the Elkhorn Fire (255,000).

Still mired in the coronavirus pandemic, California officials have been forced to forgo traditional wildfire evacuation centers to stem the spread of Covid-19. As of Thursday, counties had placed over 5,000 wildfire evacuees in hotel rooms while thousands escaped to room with friends or family members.

Firefighting resources are beginning to run thin on the West Coast as neighboring Oregon and Washington are also battling a spate of unmatched wildfires.

Nearly 1 million acres have been charred in Oregon this week, causing Gov. Kate Brown to ask for federal firefighting assistance. On average over the past 10 years, 500,000 acres have burned per season in Oregon.

Brown called the situation unprecedented, deadly and fueled by climate change.

“We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state,” Brown said in a press conference. “This will not be a one-time event; unfortunately, it’s the bellwether of the future. We’re feeling the acute impacts of climate change.”

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