Eight Facts About the Devastating 2020 California Wildfires

Wildfires continue to rage in California this month, turning the sky orange and forcing residents to evacuate their homes. The August Complex fire, one of many burning in the state, surpassed a 2018 blaze to become the largest fire in state history.

A relatively mild 2019 wildfire season gave way to a deadly, destructive and intensely active 2020 season. The flames broke records and forced thousands of people to flee from their homes as the state tries to curb new coronavirus cases and recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Adding to the complexity of the 2020 wildfire season is the new coronavirus. The fires severely deteriorated air quality in the state and left toxic smoke hanging over California. Researchers from Stanford University estimated the smoke caused up to 3,000 deaths in the state and about 4,800 extra emergency room visits. Smoke can weaken people's immune systems and cause respiratory illness, two experts told The Hill, which could increase susceptibility to the new coronavirus.

"So, certainly by itself, we'd be concerned. But with COVID circulating, having worse air quality might make it more likely for them to get infected and have worse disease with COVID-19," Dr. David Hill, a voluntary medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association said.

Eight Facts About the 2020 Wildfire Season

1. As of Sunday, fires had burned more than 3.7 million acres in California, 26 times as many as burned in the same period last year, and 14 times as many as burned in the entirety of 2019.

2. At 7,982 incidents, the 2020 season has already yielded 122 more fires than was seen all of last year.

3. Nearly nine times as many people have died in 2020 as a result of the fires, compared to lives lost in 2019. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) confirmed that 26 people died, although media reports put that number above 30. The North Complex Fire that burned more than 305,000 acres and destroyed 2,342 structures was responsible for 15 deaths, while the LNU Lightning Complex fires that burned more than 363,000 acres claimed five lives, according to Cal Fire.

4. A total of 8,100 structures have been destroyed—11 times more than all of 2019.

5. Wildfires are the norm in California, but the level of death and destruction varies by year, often driven by weather patterns. Of the top 10 largest wildfires in California's history, five occurred in 2020, taking the number one, three, four, five and six spots on the list.

california wildfires 2020 facts
Buildings burn along Highway 12 from the Shady Fire as it approaches Santa Rosa, California on Monday. California's wildfires have already burned more than double the acreage as 2018, the deadliest and most destructive season on record. Samuel Corum/Agence France-Presse/AFP/Getty

6. The August Complex fire, the largest in state history, burned 873,120 acres as of Sunday and was only 43 percent contained, according to Cal Fire. A red flag warning is still in place for parts of northern California, indicating that hot temperatures and weather conditions increase the threat for fires, and the fire is expected to spread. If the fire spreads another 50,000 acres, it'll be double the size of the 2018 Mendocino Complex fire, the previous record holder for California's largest wildfire.

7. The 2018 season was the deadliest and most destructive in California's history and the 1.67 million acres the flames burned was the largest area of burned acreage recorded in a fire season. Fires in the 2020 season have already burned more than double that amount.

8. Aside from the complex fires, the Creek fire is the largest this season and the sixth biggest in the state's history. It's burned more than 302,000 acres and Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter told CNN the rate at which it was burning in early September was enough to cover Central Park in New York City every half hour.

Cal Fire Captain Richard Cordova described the season to CNN on September 6 as "crazy" and expressed concerns about the activity's impact on personnel fighting the blazes.

"We haven't even got into the October and November fire season, and we've broken the all-time record," Cordova said. "It concerns us because we need to get these firefighters off these lines and get them breaks from battling these wildfires."