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New study shows record-breaking fire season may be normal for California

Out-of-control wildfires killed 33 people and caused more than $19 billion in damage in 2020.
Drought Fire Season
Posted at 8:06 AM, May 07, 2022

2020 was a catastrophic year for wildfires in California.

More than 4.3 million acres burned, and some fires burned for months.

While that is above the five-year average of 1.6 million acres, it actually might be more normal than almost anyone realized.

A new study from UC Davis says that the number of acres burned may actually be normal for California.

Of the top 20 largest fires in California history, most have taken place since 2017. This research goes back much further.

Out-of-control wildfires killed 33 people and caused more than $19 billion dollars in damage in 2020.

"Every acre that we keep from burning now is just gonna burn later with even more intensity at some point, because in California the question isn't whether something's gonna burn, but rather when," said Hugh Safford with UC Davis Environmental Science and Policy.

Researchers at UC Davis estimate that three to four million acres burned across California each year before European settlement in the 1800s.

"When European Americans showed up, they weren't used to dealing with fire, they didn't view it as a positive force, they were scared of it," said Safford.

2020 was the first year that the number of acres burned approached levels seen before the 1800s.

Those fires were likely much different. The UC Davis research suggests the fires were less intense and much less destructive.

"Really the big change, in terms of the long view if you're talking about millennia, is not the area burned but rather the severity that fires are burning with and the sort of destructiveness that we're seeing on landscapes," said Safford.

The question really is what to do about fires now. Some are calling out the current state "a long-term disaster."

California wants to add more firefighters, do more controlled burning, and fuel thinning.

"For the last century, we've had a policy where fires were being extinguished and there wasn't as much of this being done," said Captain Robert Foxworthy with Cal Fire. "We're now trying to get ahead of it and start treating more acres."

UC Davis researchers say the focus should shift to fighting fire severity instead of measuring success by reducing the number of acres burned.

These recommendations are for forest and woodland, meaning that immediate fire suppression is still recommended for areas that are predominately shrubland.

"Once you get into that landscape, particularly south of San Luis Obispo and more south into the Transverse ranges, you're in the systems in the lowlands, at least, where continued fire suppression is absolutely what we need to continue to do," said Safford.

Researchers say that the state is going in the right direction in terms of fuel reduction, but much more needs to be done.

The study's authors say that fuel build-up is mostly what is causing explosive fire growth-- meaning that climate change is more of a catalyst than the root cause of the problem.