- 2020 is turning into the wildfire season that just won’t end.
- Wildfires have charred more than 16,000 square miles across the U.S., an area about the size of Maryland and Delaware put together.
- The blazes have killed dozens of people, destroyed over 13,000 structures and caused at least $2 billion in damages.
With another Santa Ana wind event forecast in Southern California over the next couple of days – and more planned power outages for beleaguered residents there – 2020 is turning into the wildfire season that just won’t end.
Southern California Edison said it might shut off power to over 130,000 homes and businesses in six counties on Wednesday and Thursday, Christmas Eve, because of the threat of wildfires. Winds will gust to 40-60 mph both days; the highest gusts are likely through the canyons and passes, AccuWeather said.
The National Weather Service has issued a “red flag warning” for much of the region because of the strong Santa Ana winds, single-digit humidity and critically dry fuels.
So far in 2020, wildfires have charred more than 16,000 square miles across the United States, an area about the size of Maryland and Delaware put together. It’s the largest area burned since modern records began in 1983, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
The blazes have killed dozens of people, destroyed over 13,000 structures and caused at least $2 billion in damage, mostly in the Western U.S., the Fire Center said.
Why was 2020 such a catastrophic year for fires?
The tremendous area burned in 2020 “coincided with significant drought conditions across much of the Western U.S.,” said meteorologist Steve Bowen of Aon, a global reinsurance firm. “Prolonged hot and dry conditions – along with repeated instances of gusty offshore winds that are highly conducive for rapid fire spread – set the stage for an active season in California, Oregon and Washington.”
Many fires burned in areas that had not recorded major fire activity in decades and had also recently endured major tree loss because of unprecedented beetle infestation, he said.
California was the epicenter of fire activity in 2020, as it accounted for a remarkable 40% of the area burned across the nation: Over 6,500 square miles, an area larger than the size of Connecticut. This is more than double the previous modern record for California dating to the 1980s, based on data from CalFire.
While wildfires are a natural part of California’s landscape, the fire season in the state and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year, according to CalFire.
Climate change is a key driver of this trend, CalFire said. Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire.
Bowen agreed, saying that “it is undeniable that climate change is a major driver of these trends.” The key, however, is the ignition – and that’s where humans come into play.
“Whether it’s a downed power line, a spark from a tire rim or a baby gender reveal party gone awry, the ignition is what spawns these events. If you combine an ignition within an environment that is increasingly favorable for rapid spread, more unusual fire behavior, and hotter flames, the overall fire risk is expected to become more difficult with time,” he said.
And with more people moving into these highly vulnerable fire locations, the chances for devastating wildfires increases.
Some good news in SoCal
There is some hope for rain across Southern California in the near future.
A Pacific storm approaching California late Sunday into Monday could finally give parts of Southern California a decent soaking, according to Weather.com.
AccuWeather said the system certainly has the potential to bring much-needed rain from Los Angeles to San Diego.
“The rain would finally bring some moisture to the vegetation so that it will not be as vulnerable to fire if future wind events develop,” according to AccuWeather meteorologist Brian Thompson.