Here's How Much Better Last Fire Season Was Than the Previous Two

Embers fly as high winds blow hot spots from the Kincade Fire on October 29, 2019 in Calistoga, California.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It’s impossible to divorce the 2019 fire season in Northern California from the two that came immediately before. Those were nothing short of disastrous, so much so that many Californians entered last summer filled with dread of a third consecutive year of incinerated homes, mass evacuations and tragic loss of life.

Last year, with those recent calamities haunting the state, officials took some unprecedented steps to avert a devastating repeat.

Did they work? Well, judging by the results tallied at the end of the year, something went right. The number of acres burned was the lowest since 2011, and the wildfire-related death toll dropped to three, down from the dozens of fatalities in both 2017 and 2018.

The most extreme preventive measure came from PG&E, the state’s largest utility, whose transmission line had sparked the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes. Last fall the company implemented several large-scale power shutoffs affecting up to 2 million people during periods of high-risk for wildfire, and the outages deprived some residents of electricity for as long as a week.

Emergency procedures evolved as well. During the Kincade Fire, the state’s largest of the year, officials forced about 200,000 residents out of their homes in reportedly the biggest evacuation in Sonoma County history. The magnitude of the response was prompted by major problems concerning emergency procedures during the devastating North Bay Fires of 2017.

“We did not want to repeat that experience,” Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin told KQED’s Lisa Pickoff-White in October. “So they evacuated large numbers of the population in Sonoma County early.”


PG&E’s Planned Outages: Did They Help?

The utility executed a series power outages when high winds coincided with other dangerous conditions. After PG&E carried out its first shutoff, from Oct. 9 to Oct. 12, the company said it found dozens of locations where downed trees or other equipment failures would have created conditions ripe for a wildfire. "It is possible that any one of these instances could have been a potential source of ignition had a PSPS (public safety power shutoff) not been initiated,” PG&E said in a press release.

Susan Gorin, the Sonoma County supervisor, said the power shutoffs at the very least helped in an indirect way. When the Kincade Fire broke out, the county already had its emergency operations center up and running in response to the outage, "because we needed to work with the community," she said.

It's also worth noting that PG&E has acknowleded the malfunctioning of one of its transmission lines near the origin of the Kincade Fire just seven minutes before the blaze ignited. Ironically, the line was located in an area subject to one of the company's planned outages, but only on lower-voltage lines. (The official cause of the Kincade Fire is still under investigation.)

Whatever good may have come from the outages — which PG&E says will continue — officials hurled withering criticism at the company for poor execution in keeping the public informed during the blackouts.

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Fortuitous Weather

Other factors most certainly contributed to a relatively subdued fire year.

From year to year, there are dramatic differences in weather and forest conditions. Last year, the wet winter helped to dampen potential fuel, as did a late-May rain that left vegetation with high levels of moisture throughout the summer.

“The moderate weather pattern this year was very conducive to the [low] totals that we have as far as acres burned,” said Scott McLean, a Cal Fire spokesman. “In 2017 and 2018 you saw hundred-degree weather that was consistent for weeks at a time with winds. This year ...  started out with a good weather pattern. We stayed in that moderate weather pattern, but really no wind. Until you hit the fall, and then you started seeing fires because the wind picked up.”

California was also lucky, given the risk caused by wind storms repeatedly sweeping across Northern California’s parched chaparral in October and early November, before the region received any rain.

Warming Climate, Intensifying Fires

Whatever the reasons for a less horrifying year — better policy, good weather, luck — it's obviously too early to declare victory, especially with the acceleration of climate change.

“We expect there to be big year-to-year swings in the area burned by fire, even though, in general, climate change is creating upward pressure on fire risk,” said Alex Hall, director of the Center for Climate Science at UCLA.

The Kincade Fire was driven by a series of unique wind events, and while there’s no evidence that climate change is causing stronger winds, Jim Randerson, a climate and ecology scientist at UC Irvine, says global warming could be contributing to a decrease in wind humidity in the fall.

“That decline in humidity increases the fire risk, even if the wind strength remains similar," he said.

Stephanie Herring, a climate scientist with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, says the research is increasingly clear that hotter, drier summer conditions play a big role in wildfires’ increasing intensity. 

Fires are driven by an incredibly complex set of factors,” said Herring, the editor of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society’s report on attribution science, which calculates how much climate change contributes to specific natural disasters. “There have been numerous papers now that showed climate change is increasing the risk of wildfires in the West, in particular.”

Which means wildfire is likely going to be an issue for the foreseeable future.