California wildfires have already burned 90,000 acres, and summer is just beginning (2024)

California’s summer is off to a fiery start after an explosion of wildfire activity across the state this week, with blazes stretching firefighting resources thin, forcing evacuations and scorching several homes, businesses and bone-dry hillsides.

Perilous weather conditions in the last days of spring before Thursday — strong winds, low humidity and high temperatures — fueled flames from Los Angeles County to Colusa County north of Sacramento, with more than 30 wildfires igniting, including two of the state’s largest this year that each surpassed 15,000 acres in a matter of hours, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The early boom in wildfires is casting new concerns about what the rest of 2024 will bring, especially with the hottest months ahead and another heat dome forecast for interior California this weekend.

“Dangerously hot conditions with temperatures up to 100 to 105 expected,” the National Weather Service said in an excessive-heat warning for much of Southern California’s inland communities between Santa Barbara and San Diego counties over the weekend.

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The Weather Service predicts it could reach 107 degrees up north in the Sacramento Valley, 95 in San José and 105 degrees or higher in Bakersfield in the next couple of days, with a heat advisory issued across much of the state. Triple-digit heat, gusty winds and the potential for thunderstorms in Southern California brings the risk of another fast-moving fire.

“There is a risk of heat-related illnesses, and an increased threat of grassfires. Report any wildfires to authorities and avoid creating sparks,” the National Weather Service’s Oxnard office said Thursday on X.

“It very much is alarming,” Issac Sanchez, a Cal Fire spokesperson, said about the string of late-spring fires, though he noted it wasn’t entirely surprising. “We know how quickly things can change. ... We’re concerned — we’re always concerned, though.”

Through the last full day of spring on Wednesday, wildfires had burned almost 90,000 acres in California compared with only 5,863 acres by the same point last year, according to Cal Fire data. About half of this year’s acreage was burned in the last week. The previous five-year average for acres burned in California during the same time frame is just under 17,000 acres.

“To see that we are significantly over acreage on the [five-year] average is a concern,” Sanchez said. “What that tells us is the fuel is ready to go.”

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Though there have been 2,237 fires so far this year, fewer than the five-year average of 2,689, officials say weather conditions are priming the landscape for more rapid fire spread.

“The types of fire we’re seeing are grass fires, and really wind-driven grass fires,” Sanchez said, noting that burn scars of recent fires were long and narrow — indicative of the windy weather that pushed their growth.

The state’s two largest fires so far, both of which started last weekend, stretched south in an elongated shape, driven by northerly winds. The Post fire, burning primarily in Los Angeles County near Gorman, grew to 15,690 acres by Tuesday and remained at that size through Friday morning, when it was 61% contained, fire officials said.

The Sites fire, southeast of Stonyford in Colusa County, grew to 19,195 acres. It was 25% contained as of Friday morning, according to Cal Fire officials.

Crews at both locations were preparing for a hot weekend Friday because of the upcoming heat dome, though weather officials say this time it won’t bring the gusty winds that created recent critical fire conditions.

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“It was certainly an active late spring,” said Chad Hanson, a research ecologist focused on fire ecology and the director of the John Muir Project, which works to protect federal forests. “It’s largely a reflection of the fact that we had some really hot, dry windy days in late spring.”

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In a non-drought year — such as this one — there are more variables that can influence how and when wildfires start and spread, Hanson said, including how dry grasses, plants and trees become and what kind of weather hits. Human-caused climate change is also a factor, with higher global temperatures and more extreme precipitation, or lack thereof, adding challenges for fire suppression, he said.

“Over the past two decades, we’ve definitely seen a pattern of increasing fire activity and we’re also seeing higher temperatures because of climate change,” Hanson said. “Those two things are related.”

The fact that this year follows two less active wildfire years — and two wet winters — also creates further concerns, with most areas covered in layers of new vegetation that readily ignites when dry.

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Experts say two consecutive wet winters and forecasts for a warmer-than-normal summer will likely contribute to a ‘very active’ fire season later this fall.

June 18, 2024

“There’s a significant fuel load out there; there’s a significant grass crop out there,” Sanchez said, calling wildfires in California now a year-round issue with risks statewide. “At this point, it’s everywhere.”

Experts have been predicting an active second half of the year in the late summer and early fall, when plants that were once green and healthy will brown and desiccate in the longer, hotter days of summer.

Fortunately, wildfires are not all inherently bad, Hanson said.

“It’s not a tragedy when a fire burns in a forest. … There’s a lot of plant and animal species that have evolved to depend on a post-fire habitat,” he said. “The tragedy is when it impacts human communities — the good news is it’s almost entirely preventable.”

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Hanson called for a wildfire management strategy that focuses primarily on protecting human life and development, instead of fire suppression in forests, and decreases our dependence on fossil fuels, which worsens climate change.

Community members can also do their part to reduce wildfire risks by maintaining their vehicles and equipment, clearing out dry vegetation and closely monitoring campfires or grills, said Sanchez, the Cal Fire spokesman. The agency says about 95% of the state’s fires are caused by humans.

“The public has to take an active role in preventing fire,” Sanchez said, adding that Californians can learn more about setting up a home evacuation plan and how to prepare their homes and property for wildfires by visiting ReadyforWildfire.org.

More to Read

  • Hot and sticky conditions with chance for thunderstorms in Southern California this weekend

    June 22, 2024

  • Wildfire risks in California heightened by upcoming heat dome

    June 19, 2024

  • Post fire becomes California’s largest wildfire of the year

    June 17, 2024

California wildfires have already burned 90,000 acres, and summer is just beginning (2024)
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