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Record Setting 2020 Wildfire Season- A look Back

2020 was a challenging year with many unprecedented events. The 2020 wildfire season wasn’t an exception with record setting fires across the country. NIFC reported that as of December 23rd, 2020 there had been 57,480 wildfires that have burned 10,357,138 acres. This is almost 4 million more acres burned than the 10-year average and more than double the acreage burned in the 2019 season.

Year-to-date statistics
2020 (1/1/20-12/23/20) Fires: 57,480 Acres: 10,357,138
2019 (1/1/19-12/23/19) Fires: 49,492 Acres: 4,576,827
2018 (1/1/18-12/23/18) Fires: 55,911 Acres: 8,582,609
2017 (1/1/17-12/23/17) Fires: 65,127 Acres: 9,563,128
2016 (1/1/16-12/23/16) Fires: 62,946 Acres: 5,437,875
2015 (1/1/15-12/23/15) Fires: 60,984 Acres: 9,937,863
2014 (1/1/14-12/23/14) Fires: 63,252 Acres: 3,585,569
2013 (1/1/13-12/23/13) Fires: 46,373 Acres: 4,306,944
2012 (1/1/12-12/23/12) Fires: 67,326 Acres: 9,208,193
2011 (1/1/11-12/23/11) Fires: 72,508 Acres: 8,642,298
2010 (1/1/10-12/23/10) Fires: 68,598 Acres: 3,379,874
10-year average Year-to-Date
2010-2019 Fires: 61,203 Acres: 6,712,681
Source: National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)

California First to Raise the Alarm

On March 22, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency due to critical fire weather conditions brought by dry conditions, near record heat, and a mass die-off of trees throughout the state. 

Wildfires in California burned a record setting 4.2 million acres with 5 of the states top 20 largest wildfires and 6 of the states most destructive fires occurring this year. The staggering number of acres burned are the most in a single year since CalFire began keeping records, and more than the last three years combined. These wildfires damaged or destroyed approximately 10,500 structures and killed 31 people. 

Source: CalFire

All but one of these record setting fires occurred during the “August Lighting Siege.” Over the course of 72 hours, more than 650 wildfires ignited across Northern California. Of these fires, the lightning caused August Complex became the first “giga fire”, burning over a million acres and shattering the previous record by nearly double the amount of acres burned.  

Record Setting Wildfire - Largest in California's History

Size Comparison – The August Complex Perimeter Repositioned Over the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area

Other States Suffered a Similar Fate

Other states experienced similar wildfire intensity. Almost 700,000 acres burned in Colorado during 2020, including the three largest fires in state history. 

The Cameron Peak Fire started on August 13 in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests west of Fort Collins. It became the largest in Colorado’s history after quadrupling in size over Labor Day weekend and making another aggressive run on Oct. 14, burning over 20,000 acres in one day. Before the fire was finally contained it had burned over 208,913 acres.

The East Troublesome Fire, the second-largest blaze in Colorado’s history, moved through some areas at as much as 6,000 acres per hour. The fire eventually consumed 193,812 acres and became the first fire to cross the continental divide.

In Oregon wildfires burned approximately 1 million acres of land, almost double the 10-year average of 557,000 acres. More concerning than the number of acres burned, the second most in state history, was the unprecedented destruction. Only 2 homes were lost to wildfires in Oregon in 2019. In fact over the course of the last 4 wildfire seasons Oregon only lost a combined total of 93 homes. The amount of homes lost in 2020 totaled more than the next 5 most destructive seasons combined, with 4,009 homes lost! 

Not to be outdone by its southern neighbor, Washington saw more acres burn in one day than it did in the entirety of the past 12 wildfire seasons. Some 80 fires ignited and burned through nearly 300,000 acres over Labor Day. This includes the Pearl Hill and Cold Springs fires which combined to burn over 410,000 acres and become the largest in the state’s history. 

More of the Same in 2021

The last month of 2020 was a precursor of what is to come with several days of Red Flag Warnings for California. As 2021 nears, forecasters predict another year of large fires due to continuous climate change, persistent drought, and La Niña in regions prone to parched vegetation and climbing temperatures. It seems impossible to imagine that we could see records shattered like 2020 but if the past few years have proven, unprecedented wildfire seasons are the new normal.

2018 Fire Season in Review

2018’s fire season was another record breaking year; in particular, California was absolutely devastated in terms of lives and property lost. According to the National Interagency Fire Center in 2018, 8,582,609 acres were burned by 55,911 different wildfire starts throughout the United States. In comparison to the 2017 fire season, there were 991,924 fewer acres burned in 2018, from 8,699 less starts than 2017. These statistics paint a picture that this past season was not as severe in terms of wildfires, this could not be further from the truth.

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CAL FIRE Transitions Out of Fire Season in NorCal

Fire Season Over for NorCal

Since May 1st of this year, CAL FIRE (California’s state fire agency) has been in “fire season” mode.  This designation denotes a state of higher alert in which staffing is increased, burn restrictions are tightened, and wildfire monitoring efforts are intensified.

With the recent mild and wet weather, all Northern CAL FIRE units north of Fresno (15 of the 27 in California) were able to transition away from fire season into what they call “winter preparedness.” This change in the state’s preparedness level is typically preceded by prolonged rains and cooler forecasted temperatures across the region, lowering the threat of wildfire ignitions and allowing officials to reduce alert levels.

In Northern California, a series of storms and forecasted wet conditions have allowed all of the units to down-staff by releasing seasonal fire stations and firefighters. This also means that burn restrictions have ceased, allowing multiple prescribed fire projects to get underway in the region. The change to winter preparedness typically lasts until the following May when conditions begin to worsen as the summer months approach.

In the map below, we show the fifteen units currently out of fire season and the twelve from Southern California still prepared for higher fire activity. As drought conditions continue to have a hold on Southern and Central California, CAL FIRE will maintain fire season status and staffing to meet the continued threat there.

CALFIRE Unit Fire Season status as of November 2016

CALFIRE Unit Fire Season status as of November 2016

Weather Outlook

The outlook for the Northern California region has improved significantly since earlier this year. Much of the region has been in a long-term drought for years, which has lengthened and stregthened each coinciding fire season. Over the course of this year, the worst of the drought has slowly crept south with mostly moderate drought conditions remaining for areas north of Fresno. Part of the reason has been the return of regular precipitation in northern areas. Rain began to fall in early October and a series of storms at the end of October and through November produced heavier precipitation. As winter sets in, more wet weather systems are expected to continue to bring precipitation to the region, leaving large fire potential at minimal levels through next February.


Sources:

CAL FIRE: Fire Season Status

Lake County News

Sierra Star

North Ops Outlook