California Wildfires Triple Amid Drought After Record 2020 Fire Season

The flames that burned more than 1,300 acres in Los Angeles County over the weekend served as a reminder to California residents that wildfires have become a constant threat rather than a concern relegated to the officially recognized wildfire season of the late summer and fall months.

By early May, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) reported at least 9,392 acres burned since the start of the year—more than three times the five-year average Cal Fire reported over the same time period in previous years. The number of acres burned so far this year exceeded 13,900 when combined with the number of burned acres reported by Cal Fire's partner agencies.

Experts note that wildfires existed long before humans inhabited California, but California's drought conditions play a significant role in them. Earlier this spring, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a drought emergency for several counties due to warm temperatures, dry soil, rapid snowmelt and the resulting reduction in water available from major reservoirs.

The governor expanded the drought state of emergency to include 41 of the state's 58 counties earlier this month, which collectively cover about 30 percent of the state's residents.

"Cal Fire has been saying for a few years that wildfire is now a year-round phenomenon in California," said Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor at Stanford's Department of Earth System Science. Diffenbaugh said there is a "confluence of conditions" that contribute to wildfires, but the drought persisting throughout California has made many residents concerned about what the arid conditions will mean for the next spate of fires.

Palisades fire May 2021
A firefighter watches the flames from the Palisades fire as helicopters make water drops in the distance in Topanga State Park, North West of Los Angeles on May 15, 2021. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

"Ignitions matter, and the preparation and response matter," Diffenbaugh told Newsweek. "But in terms of the conditions of the fuel aridity on the landscape, we're in high-risk starting conditions here in mid-May."

More than 4 million acres burned in California last year, a record-breaking number for a state that has long been plagued by wildfires.

In addition to the sheer number of acres burned, 2020 also saw five of California's 10 largest fires on record, with the state's largest—dubbed the August Complex fire—burning more than 1 million acres and destroying more than 900 structures.

The record-setting year followed the more than 7,100 fires reported statewide in 2019, which Diffenbaugh said came as a "much less severe year" for California wildfires.

Distinguished Professor Glen MacDonald, whose research at the University of California Los Angeles' Department of Geography focuses on water resources and environmental impacts of climate change, said the size of the fires is of particular importance.

"We're not actually seeing a statistically significant increase in the number of fires—we're just seeing that the ones that get going, some of them are much, much bigger," he told Newsweek.

Nicasio Reservoir, California
In an aerial view, low water levels are visible at Nicasio Reservoir on April 23, 2021 in Nicasio, California. As the worsening drought takes hold in the state of California, Marin County became the first county in the state to impose mandatory water-use restrictions. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Though climate change and drought are often pointed to as reasons for worsening wildfire conditions, both Diffenbaugh and MacDonald said there are many factors at play in what MacDonald described as a "complex, interlocking puzzle." Fuel aridity, human development, varying ignition causes and other factors increase wildfire risks.

Similar drought conditions are impacting California's neighboring states and the Colorado River, from which California gets the bulk of its drinking water. According to The Arizona Republic, shortages resulting from declining water levels in the Colorado River are expected to trigger water cutbacks in Arizona. In Oregon, drought conditions recently triggered a halt to the flow of irrigation water to farmers in the Klamath Basin, which the Associated Press reported is similarly experiencing a significant drought.

The National Weather Service predicted persisting drought for California and its neighboring states in the months ahead. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) acknowledged the existence of above-average temperatures and below average precipitation along the West Coast in April. Earlier this spring, the head of the NOAA's prediction arm told the Associated Press it anticipated "an enhanced wildfire season" due to the warm and dry conditions reported throughout the country.

To address the arid conditions in California, Newsom proposed a $5.1 billion spending plan last week to support water infrastructure and provide funding for drought response. The spending package, which was announced as part of a $100 billion economic relief package known as the "California Comeback Plan," also came as Newsom proposed investing $2 billion in wildfire preparedness.

"Climate change is here—and CA is more prepared than ever before to fight wildfires and make our forests more resilient," Newsom said in a tweet announcing his investment plans.

Bobcat Fire 2020
The Bobcat Fire burns pine trees near Cedar Springs, Los Angeles, California on September 21, 2020. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

MacDonald told Newsweek the proposed spending plans are "definitely the right direction" for the state to take as the drought persists. Diffenbaugh agreed, and said the state government's approach to making decisions about changing environmental conditions appears to be "very proactive."

Even so, both experts told Newsweek long-term solutions are needed.

"The strategies we're using on a year-by-year basis aren't working," MacDonald said.

He was quick to add that criticisms of those strategies are separate from "the brave men and women who are on those fire lines."

Wildfires are "part of the California environment," MacDonald said. In a state as environmentally diverse as California, the prevention and response strategies will change depending on the state's varying ecosystems, he added.

"I think we need to really come to grips with some somewhat dramatic long-range solutions," MacDonald said.

One way California can address its drought conditions is by continuing to improve its water efficiency, which Diffenbaugh said has significantly improved since California's historic drought in the mid-1970s. Clearing flammable brush and other potential fire fuel around housing and commercial developments are other strategies MacDonald said can help, as can building or updating structures with fire-resistant materials.

MacDonald, who also works to identify strategies that can prevent coastal areas from flooding, said a managed retreat will also likely be necessary in addressing California's wildfire threats. The concept, which is applied often in coastal protection strategies, would mean avoiding building in areas at high risk of wildfires. MacDonald said this particular strategy would be "undoubtedly controversial" due to the often picturesque landscape that attracts new residents and California's high housing prices, which also push people into fire-prone areas.

Palisades fire October 2019
Firefighters work during the Palisades Fire, in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood, on October 21, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images

"I do think that we have to start thinking about managed retreat in some of these highly fire-prone regions of the state, particularly in the face of climate change over the 21st century," MacDonald told Newsweek.

As both Diffenbaugh and MacDonald pointed out, wildfires are not new in California—but the recent uptick in acres burned paired with the state's ongoing drought conditions make wildfire a point of significant concern for many of the state's residents.

"We're certainly in much more severe drought status at this time than we were last year," Diffenbaugh said.

As the official wildfire season progresses, MacDonald said he is mostly worried about the time it may take for California to adopt the kind of long-term strategies he believes are necessary.

"My biggest fear is this is going to be another year where we have huge wildfires," MacDonald told Newsweek. "We pretend that this is the kind of crisis that's going to just pass, and it's not—we need long-term solutions."