Wildfires in California have burned more than five times the amount of acreage in the first five months of 2021 as they did in the same period last year, a worrying trend after what was the worst year for fires in the state’s history.
A dry winter season that has led to drought conditions is raising fears of another dangerous season ahead.
“We’re having an increase of activity, an increase in acres burned compared to where we were last year,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Jon Heggie told CNN.
“We were able to keep most fires to a manageable size but as we get to the heart of the fire season, that’s where the concern is,” Heggie cautioned. “It all really depends on the summer.”
Roughly 14,000 acres have burned in so far this year, which is more than five times the acreage charred by the same period last year, according to data from Cal Fire.
Extreme drought conditions
In 2020, more than four million acres were scorched by wildfires, accounting for roughly 4% of all the land in the state.
The wildfires included four of the largest in the state’s history. At least 33 people were killed and more 10,000 structures destroyed, according to Cal Fire.
According to the US Drought Monitor, more than 73% of California is now experiencing “extreme” drought conditions. About 15% of the state, including parts of the Sierra Nevada, are now in “exceptional” drought, the highest category.
The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which typically provides a crucial reservoir of water for the state’s cities and agriculture into the warm summer months, has already melted this spring, with state data showing just 2% of normal snowpack remains for this time of year. The lack of snowpack means less water for rivers and already dry forests vulnerable to wildfires.
Conditions will only get worse in terms of the weather, according to CNN Meteorologist Michael Guy.
“Northern California will see a front push in late Thursday which could increase winds as it passes,” Guy said. “Into the weekend and long range the heat is going to build in the West, so then conditions will deteriorate for fire weather due to the warmer temperatures.”
Governor increases wildfire resources
Heggie said Cal Fire is taking a proactive approach to the increase in fire activity and the early actions from the governor and legislature have allowed firefighters to prepare staffing into peak season.
On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would double the state’s proposed budget for wildfire prevention, boosting the record-breaking investment to $2 billion.
When Newsom initially unveiled his budget, it included funds to fast-track 35 major wildfire prevention projects. The additional funds will elevate that to cover 500 projects focused on the management of wildfire fuels, he said.
Earlier this month, Newsom also expanded a drought emergency to most of the parched state.
He recently announced the Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force, a coalition of federal, state, and tribal leaders focused on improving the health of forests and reducing wildfire risk to communities.
The firefighting plan includes funding to hire additional firefighting crews, purchase 12 new helicopters and seven large air tankers, and create a state hub specifically dedicated to wildfire coordination similar to the National Hurricane Center.
Cal Fire has also brought on an additional 1,399 firefighters for the 2021 season, said Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter.
“We actually have more firefighters on the ground going into peak season than we ever have before,” Porter said. “And so what that means is we’re diversifying our crews. While we’ve seen a reduction in inmates for our fire crew program, we’ve increased the number of seasonal firefighters to fill that need.”