Wildfires have burned roughly 14,000 acres in California this year as a deepening drought grips the Southwest – more than five times the acreage charred by the same time last year.
It’s a worrying trend that has fire officials taking a proactive approach – from more funding to wildfire prevention to hiring additional crews – after the state saw its worst fire season ever in 2020.
Only five months into the year, a total of 2,340 fires have burned 14,340 acres, an increase of 1,284 fires and 11,793 acres over the same period in 2020, according to new data from Cal Fire.
“We were able to keep most fires to a manageable size but as we get to the heart of the fire season, that’s where the concern is,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Jon Heggie told CNN. “It all really depends on the summer.”
The dry winter season leading to worsening drought conditions is raising fears of another severe fire season ahead. Just last year, wildfires ravaged more than four million acres up and down California, accounting for roughly 4% of all the land in the state. Four of the largest wildfires in the state’s history burned last year alone
At least 33 people were killed and more 10,000 structures destroyed in 2020, according to Cal Fire.
And according to the US Drought Monitor, more than 73% of California is now experiencing “extreme” drought conditions. About 15% of the state, including parts of the Sierra Nevada, are now in “exceptional” drought, the highest category.
The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which typically provides a crucial reservoir of water for the state’s cities and agriculture into the warm summer months, has already melted this spring, with state data showing just 2% of normal snowpack remains for this time of year. The lack of snowpack means less water for rivers and already dry forests vulnerable to wildfires.
Governor increases wildfire resources
Heggie said Cal Fire is taking a proactive approach to the increase in fire activity and the early actions from the governor and legislature have allowed firefighters to prepare staffing into peak season.
On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would double the state’s proposed budget for wildfire prevention, boosting the record-breaking investment to $2 billion.
When Newsom initially unveiled his budget, it included funds to fast-track 35 major wildfire prevention projects. The additional funds will elevate that to cover 500 projects focused on the management of wildfire fuels, he said.
Earlier this month, Newsom also expanded a drought emergency to most of the parched state.
He recently announced the Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force, a coalition of federal, state, and tribal leaders focused on improving the health of forests and reducing wildfire risk to communities.
The firefighting plan includes funding to hire additional firefighting crews, purchase 12 new helicopters and seven large air tankers, and create a state hub specifically dedicated to wildfire coordination similar to the National Hurricane Center.
Cal Fire has also brought on an additional 1,399 firefighters for the 2021 season, said Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter.
“We actually have more firefighters on the ground going into peak season than we ever have before,” Porter said. “And so what that means is we’re diversifying our crews. While we’ve seen a reduction in inmates for our fire crew program, we’ve increased the number of seasonal firefighters to fill that need.”