Los Angeles, California – After years of record-breaking fires in the US state of California, the 2022 wildfire season was notable for another reason: It was relatively subdued.
Governor Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) marked the end of the “peak season for fires” by touting “a significant reduction in the number of acres burned and structures damaged or destroyed in the past year compared with recent years”.
Newsom credited “record investments” in wildfire resources for helping contain this year’s wildfires. In the past two years alone, California has allocated $2.8 million to “wildfire resilience.”
Yet wildfires in the state have affected more than 1,460 square miles (565 square miles) of land, destroyed nearly 800 buildings and killed nine civilians so far in 2022.
And the likelihood of fires remains significant, especially in Southern California, where CAL FIRE predicts a later onset of the rainy season as the region suffers from drought. The state is currently in the middle of its driest three-year period on record.
Newsom, who was recently re-elected, said his first term as governor was marked by “two of the most destructive wildfire seasons in recorded history and two of the least destructive in a decade.”
“There’s no better representation of how fleeting fire seasons can be,” he said.
While fires in California have become a year-round phenomenon, the most intense activity typically occurs during the hottest months of the year, from late spring through October. Fire risk decreases as temperatures drop and rainfall increases.
A seven-day forecast of California’s fire risk by the National Interagency Fire Center showed that every region of the state was considered “low risk” or “little or no risk” of fires as of Monday.
Fire has become a regular part of life in California as climate change couples overgrown forests to fuel fires that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Of the 10 biggest fires in the state’s history, seven have occurred since 2017.
The 2020 season was the largest wildfire season in modern California history. More than 17,000 square kilometers (6,565 sq mi) and 11,116 buildings burned down. The 2021 fire season continued to offer “unprecedented” conditions with nearly 10,400 square kilometers (over 4,000 square miles) destroyed. That year, a single record-breaking fire, the Dixie Fire, burned an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Many pundits said they believed the 2022 season would continue the trend. Instead, fires burned more than 8,000 square kilometers (3,000 sq mi) less than in 2021.
Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at the University of California at Berkeley, told Al Jazeera that a number of factors contributed to the relatively quiet fire season.
They included fewer thunderstorms and a lack of strong winds during a debilitating heat wave that enveloped California in September, a month that often sees high levels of fire activity.
Stephens noted that the state has also allocated more resources to deal with fires soon after they break out, when they are easier to contain.
Creating more sustainable ecosystems will also play a key role in dealing with wildfires, Stephens said. He pointed to the rising popularity of tactics such as lighting controlled fires to thin out overgrown forests as a “step in the right direction”.
But he added that such efforts must grow substantially to meet the state’s goals, including using natural resource management to prevent fires.
‘Too little action’
California’s 2022 fire season continued to see a number of deadly outbreaks, though none exceeded 400 square miles for the first time in years.
In August, the McKinney Fire covered more than 240 square kilometers (nearly 100 square miles), leading to evacuation orders for thousands of people and the killing of four, according to CAL FIRE.
Oak Fire in July, resulting in a state of emergency in Maricopa County and forcing thousands to flee, took place on the doorstep of Yosemite National Park, one of the state’s most popular national parks.
The September heat wave exacerbated fire conditions and firefighters reportedly suffered heat stroke on the job. The Mosquito Fire, the largest of the season, grew to more than 300 square kilometers (nearly 120 square miles) that month with the help of high temperatures.
CAL FIRE said it was “20,000 acres [more than 80sq km] of prevention and mitigation projects” over the past two months, benefiting from fewer fires to prepare for the future.
However, the state’s fire service personnel are suffering personnel problems as workers grapple with the growing demands of intense fire seasons, combined with low wages and long shifts.
Without a more robust workforce, prevention and mitigation work will be difficult to scale, Stephens warned.
“The big question is whether we are making enough progress,” said Stephens. “There are good intentions, but still not enough action.”