2020 Western United States wildfires
GOES17 geocolor Western US 2020-09-09 1100AM.jpg
September 9 satellite image of the wildfires burning in California and Oregon
LocationWestern United States
Statistics[1]
Total fires100+
Total areaOver 6,609,880.1 acres (2,674,923.6 ha)[2]
Cost>$1.7 billion (2020 USD)[2]
Date(s)July 24, 2020 (2020-07-24) – ongoing (ongoing)
Buildings destroyed7,500+[2]
Deaths37[3][4][5]
Non-fatal injuriesUnknown

In 2020, the Western United States experienced a series of major wildfires. Severe August thunderstorms ignited numerous wildfires across California, Oregon, and Washington, followed in early September by additional ignitions across the West Coast. Fanned by strong, gusty winds and fueled by hot, dry terrains, many of the fires exploded and coalesced into record-breaking, fire-cloud-forming[6] megafires,[7] burning more than 6.6 million acres (2.7 million hectares) of land,[2] mobilizing tens of thousands of firefighters, razing thousands of buildings, and killing at least 37 people.[3][8] Experts indicate climate change and poor forest management practices contributed to the severity of the wildfires.[9]

Background

Fire, environment, and cultural shift

Fire regimes of United States vegetation

Combustion is an elemental shaping force on Earth. Since time immemorial, fires have forged the natural environment of our planet. Hominids have set fire to the landscape for at least a million years, and some 14,000 years ago, migrated to the continents these days commonly known as the Americas. Save for areas along the northern and southern extents of the Pacific coast, North America tends to be wetter in the east and drier in the west, ideal conditions for the lightning and wind of storms to spark and spread large-scale, seasonal wildfires,[10][11] alongside the development of human societies practicing cultural burns.

Fire itself is sacred. It renews life. It shades rivers and cools the water’s temperature. It clears brush and makes for sufficient food for large animals. It changes the molecular structure of traditional food and fiber resources making them nutrient dense and more pliable.[10][11]

— Bill Tripp, Karuk tribe Department of Natural Resources deputy director

Native peoples across the Americas have performed controlled burns for millennia,[11] significantly altering the environment. Prior to 1800 CE, as a result of lightning and human fire-setting, it is conservatively estimated that mosaics of forest and shrubland composing 4.4 million acres (1.8 million hectares) burned annually in California,[12] timed evenly throughout the year, with less smoke, and when seasonally appropriate, as compared to the contemporary 3 to 5 month, densely-smoky fire season. An area estimate across Oregon and Washington totals 465,495 acres (184,737 hectares).[13][clarification needed] In the northwest, the Karuk people periodically set prescribed fires to clear forest undergrowth, increasing forest fire-resistance and biodiversity, and preserving place-based cultural heritage and memory of human-fire relationship. Over the last few centuries, various Indigenous fire stewardships[11] have been curtailed and outlawed due to societal racism at the root of European colonization, which instituted paradigmatic changes in ecosystem priorities and management.[10][better source needed][14]

In 1911, [United States] federal policy (Weeks Act) was enacted with a strict goal to 'suppress all fires'. The pressure exerted on tribal and settler communities to discontinue fire use was immediate and intense.[15]

Land was excluded from fire, and vegetation accumulated near settlements, increasing the risk of explosive, smoky conflagrations. Even so, memories of traditional ecological knowledge of human-fire relationship have survived; held, remembered, taught, and passed-down as they were and are by Karuk and other aboriginal fire-keepers. In the last few decades, these cultural memories have begun to be acknowledged, respected, and learned by sections of the more recent settler societies, including the Forest Services of various settler colonial nation-states.[14][16]

While non-human-caused ignitions are typical of fire-prone ecosystems, higher human population and settlement extending into the wildland–urban interface has brought with it increased accidental and intentional sparking of fires.[citation needed] With the advent of the worldwide, widespread increased burning of fossil fuels the climate has changed, and the globe has markedly heated.

Record hemispheric heat

The Northern Hemisphere January-August land and ocean surface temperature tied with 2016 as the warmest such period since global records began in 1880. The Southern Hemisphere had its third-warmest such period (tied with 2017) on record, behind 2016 and 2019.[17]

— United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, September 14, 2020
Year-to-date (through September 8, 2020) animation of extent and intensity of drought in the United States maintained by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln[18]

Record dry weather struck the Western United States in late 2019, extending to January and February 2020, prompting initial concerns from state governments and the press.[19]

California was the first to call out a warning.[20] On March 22, a state of emergency was declared by California Governor Gavin Newsom due to a mass die-off of trees throughout the state, potentially increasing the risk of wildfire. Oregon officially declared the start of their wildfire season that same month.[20][21] Despite light rain in late March and April, severe drought conditions persisted, and were predicted to last late into the year, due to a delayed wet season.[22] After fires began in Washington in April, several more fires occurred throughout the West Coast, prompting burn ban restrictions in the Washington and Oregon, come July.[23]

Year-to-date wildfire figures

United States agencies stationed at the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho maintain a "National Large Incident Year-to-Date Report" on wildfires, delineating 10 sub-national areas, aggregating the regional and national totals of burn size, fire suppression cost, and razed structure count, among other data. As of September 18, "Coordination Centers" of each geography report the following:[2]

Note: Check primary sources for up-to-date statistics.

National Interagency Fire Center Geographic Area Coordination Centers
National Interagency Fire Center Geographic Area Coordination Centers
Coordination Center Acres Hectares Suppression Costs Structures Destroyed
Alaska Interagency 171,045.7 69,219.7 $14,837,241.00 8
Northwest Area 1,894,689.2 766,753.5 $241,771,756.78 4,256
Northern California Area 3,357,844.0 1,358,871.3 $697,836,173.93 3,702
Southern California Area 965,999.5 390,926.1 $459,489,882.00 1,434
Northern Rockies 326,491.4 132,126.4 $59,274,372.00 222
Great Basin 769,517.2 311,412.6 $180,322,529.00 174
Southwest Area 951,609.6 385,102.7 $183,563,964.96 48
Rocky Mountain Area 480,662.8 194,517.3 $156,241,217.34 73
Eastern Area 10,071.8 4,075.9 $491,898.58 18
Southern Area 2,665,951.3 1,078,872.2 $14,605,789.11 310
Totals[a] 11,593,882.5 4,691,877.8 $2,008,434,824.70 10,245

Timeline of events

Initial ignitions and weather conditions

The CZU Lightning Complex fires were sparked by lightning in mid-August[24]

April saw the beginning of wildfires in the west coast, as Washington experienced two fires: the Stanwood Bryant Fire in Snohomish County (70 acres (28 ha)) and the Porter Creek Fire in Whatcom County (80 acres (32 ha)).[25] The Oregon Department of Forestry declared fire season beginning July 5, 2020, signaling the end of unregulated debris burning outdoors, a major cause of wildfires.[26]

Between July 16 and 30, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and many county governments – including Mason, Thurston, King, Pierce and Whatcom Counties – issued fire safety burn bans due to elevated risk of uncontrolled fires.[27] In late July, a brush fire in Chelan County, the Colockum Fire, burned at least 3,337 acres (1,350 ha) and caused homes to be evacuated.[28] A fire on the Colville Reservation near Nespelem called the Greenhouse Fire burned at least 5,146 acres (2,083 ha) and caused the evacuation of the Colville Tribal Corrections Facility and other structures.[29][30]

Between August 14 and 16, Northern California was subjected to record-breaking warm temperatures,[31] due to anomalously strong high pressure over the region. Early on August 15, the National Weather Service for San Francisco issued a Fire Weather Watch[32] highlighting the risk of wildfire starts due to the combination of lightning risk due to moist, unstable air aloft, dry fuels, and hot temperatures near the surface. Later that day, the Fire Weather Watch was upgraded to a Red Flag Warning,[33] noting the risk of abundant lightning already apparent as the storms moved toward the region from the south.

In mid-August, the remnants of Tropical Storm Fausto interacted with the jet stream, resulting in a large plume of moisture moving northward towards the West Coast of the U.S., triggering a massive siege of lightning storms in Northern California, and setting the conditions for wildfires elsewhere.[34] Due to abnormal wind patterns, this plume streamed from up to 1,000 miles (1,600 km) off the coast of the Baja Peninsula into Northern California. This moisture then interacted with a high-pressure ridge situated over Nevada that was bringing a long-track heat wave to much of California and the West.[35] These colliding weather systems then created excessive atmospheric instability that generated massive thunderstorms throughout much of Northern and Central California. Such thunderstorms are rare for California, but were more typical of Midwest garden-variety storms, with one location near Travis Air Force Base going from around 80 °F (27 °C) to 100 °F (38 °C) in nearly 1–2 hours.[36] Additionally, much of these storms were only accompanied with dry lightning and produced little to no rain, making conditions very favorable for wildfires to spark and spread rapidly.[37]

As a result of the fires, on August 19, Governors Kate Brown and Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency for Oregon and Washington respectively.[38][39]

Growth of fires

Six of the twenty largest wildfires in California history were part of the 2020 wildfire season. Five of the new wildfires ranking in the top 10 were all a part of the August 2020 lightning fires.

By August 20, the Palmer Fire near Oroville, Washington – which started August 18 – had reached 13,000 acres (5,300 ha) and forced evacuation of up to 85 homes.[40][41] The largest of the fires in the Olympics reached 2.4 acres (0.97 ha) by August 20.[42]

View of the Bobcat Fire from a kitchen window in Monrovia, California

The Evans Canyon Fire, a few miles north of Naches, began around August 31 and expanded to tens of thousands of acres, shut down Washington State Route 821 in the Yakima River Canyon, burned several homes and caused hundreds of families to evacuate, and caused unhealthy air quality in Yakima County.[43] By September 6, it had burned almost 76,000 acres (31,000 ha).[44]

The August 2020 lightning fires include three of the largest wildfires in the recorded history of California: the SCU Lightning Complex, the August Complex, and the LNU Lightning Complex. On September 10, 2020, the August Complex became the single-largest wildfire in the recorded history of California, reaching a total area burned of 471,185 acres (1,907 km2). Then, on September 11, it merged with the Elkhorn Fire, another massive wildfire of 255,039 acres (1,032 km2), turning the August Complex into a monster wildfire of 746,607 acres (3,021 km2).[45]

In early September 2020, a combination of a record-breaking heat wave, and Diablo and Santa Ana winds sparked more fires and explosively grew active fires, with the August Complex surpassing the 2018 Mendocino Complex to become California's largest recorded wildfire.[45] The North Complex increased in size as the winds fanned it westward, threatening the city of Oroville, and triggering mass evacuations.[46] During the first week in September, the 2020 fire season set a new California record for the most area burned in a year at 2,000,000 acres (810,000 ha).[47] As of September 13, 3,200,000 acres (1,300,000 ha) had burned in the state.[48]

On September 7, a "historic fire event" with high winds resulted in 80 fires and nearly 300,000 acres (120,000 ha) burned in a day. Malden, in the Palouse Country of Eastern Washington, was mostly destroyed by one of the fires.[49] By the evening of September 8, the Cold Springs Canyon and adjacent Pearl Hill Fires had burned over 337,000 acres (136,000 ha) and neither was more than 10% contained.[50] Smoke blanketed the Seattle area on September 8 and caused unhealthy air conditions throughout the Puget Sound region, and affected Southwest British Columbia.[51][52]

The cities of Phoenix and Talent in Oregon were substantially destroyed by the Almeda Drive Fire. State-wide, at least 23 people have been killed.[53][54] On September 11, authorities said they were preparing for a mass fatality incident.[55] As of September 11, 600 homes and 100 commercial buildings have been destroyed by the Almeda Drive Fire.[56] Officials stated that the Almeda Drive Fire was human-caused.[56] On September 11, a man was arrested for arson, for allegedly starting a fire that destroyed multiple homes in Phoenix and merged with the Almeda Drive Fire.[57] A separate criminal investigation into the origin point of the Almeda Drive Fire in Ashland is ongoing.[57]

Around September 11–12, wildfires were starting to encroach upon the Clackamas County suburbs of Portland, Oregon, especially the fast-moving Riverside Fire which had already jumped the nearby community of Estacada, but shifting wind directions kept the fire away from the main Portland area.[58]

Through much of September, at least 8 large wildfires, each of 100,000 acres (400 km2) or more, were burning in Washington and Oregon, with 3 in Washington and 5 in Oregon. This was unprecedented for those two states, which combined only saw a total of 26 large fires from 1997 to 2019.[59] On September 22, 10 large fires, each of at least 100,000 acres, were burning across California, including 5 of the 10 largest wildfires in the state's history.[60]

Evacuations

The Government of California's video about COVID-19 protocols in place at wildfire evacuation centers

The first evacuations began on September 4, when almost 200 people were airlifted out of the Sierra National Forest due to the rapidly exploding Creek Fire. Then on September 9, most of the southern area of the city of Medford, Oregon was forced to evacuate and almost all of the 80,000 residents living in the city were told to be ready if necessary[61] because of the uncontained Almeda Drive Fire, which was fast encroaching on their city.[62][63] As of September 11, about 40,000 people in Oregon had been instructed to evacuate, and 500,000, accounting for about 10% of the state's population, had received instructions to prepare for evacuation, being under a Level 1, 2, or 3 fire evacuation alert.[64][65]

List of wildfires

The following is a list of fires that burned more than 1,000 acres (400 ha), or produced significant structural damage or casualties.

Name County Acres Start date Containment date Notes Ref
Interstate 5 Kings 2,060 May 3 May 7 [66]
Range San Luis Obispo 5,000 May 27 May 28 [67]
Scorpion Santa Barbara 1,395 May 31 June 1 [68]
Quail Solano 1,837 June 6 June 10 3 structures destroyed [69][70]
Wood San Diego 11,000 June 8 June 12 Burned on Camp Pendleton [71]
India San Diego 1,100 June 8 June 14 Burned on Camp Pendleton [72]
Soda San Luis Obispo 1,672 June 10 June 11 2 structures destroyed [73][74]
Grant Sacramento 5,042 June 12 June 17 1 structure damaged [75]
Walker Calaveras 1,455 June 16 June 20 2 structures destroyed [76]
River San Luis Obispo 15 June 22 June 23 2 structures destroyed, 9 damaged [77]
Grade Tulare 1,050 June 22 June 26 [78]
Pass Merced 2,192 June 28 June 30 [79]
Bena Kern 2,900 July 1 July 3 [80]
Crews Santa Clara 5,513 July 5 July 13 1 structure destroyed; 1 damaged; 1 injury. Resulted in evacuations of rural Gilroy. [81]
Soledad Los Angeles 1,525 July 5 July 15 1 injury [82]
Mineral Fresno 29,667 July 13 July 26 7 structures destroyed [83] [84]
Coyote San Benito 1,508 July 15 July 18 [85]
Hog Lassen 9,564 July 18 August 8 2 structures destroyed [86]
Gold Lassen 22,634 July 20 August 8 13 structures destroyed; 5 structures damaged; 2 firefighters injured in burnover [87]
July Complex 2020 Modoc, Siskiyou 83,261 July 22 August 7 1 structure destroyed; 3 outbuildings destroyed [88]
Blue Jay Mariposa County, California, Tuolumne County, California 4,468 July 24 40% contained as of September 17 Lightning-sparked [89]
Red Salmon Complex Humboldt County, California, Siskiyou County, California, Trinity County, California 106,292 July 26 29% contained as of September 23 Originally started as both the Red and Salmon fire (both started by lightning strikes), but have since merged into one fire [90][91]
Chikamin Chelan County, Washington 1,685 July 31 97% contained, as of September 19 [92]
Apple Riverside 33,424 July 31 95% contained as of September 16 4 structures destroyed; 8 outbuildings destroyed; 4 injuries [93]
Pond San Luis Obispo 1,962 August 1 August 8 1 structure destroyed; 1 damaged; 13 outbuildings destroyed[94] [95]
North Lassen 6,882 August 2 August 10 6,882 acres in total, of which approximately 4,105 acres burned in Washoe County, Nevada [96]
Stagecoach Kern 7,760 August 3 August 16 23 structures destroyed; 4 damaged; 25 outbuildings destroyed; 2 damaged;[97] 1 firefighter fatality[98] [99]
Neals Hill Harney County, Oregon 3,391 August 5 August 20 Caused by lightning [100][101]
Wolf Mariposa County, California, Tuolumne County, California 1,087 August 11 25% contained as of September 19 Lightning-sparked [102]
Lake Los Angeles 31,089 August 12 95% contained as of September 19 Lightning-sparked, 33 structures destroyed; 6 damaged; 21 outbuildings destroyed; 2 injuries [103][104]
Ranch 2 Los Angeles 4,237 August 13 96% contained as of September 18 Lightning-sparked [105]
Loyalton Lassen, Plumas, Sierra 47,029 August 15 September 14 Lightning-sparked, Caused National Weather Service to issue first ever Fire Tornado Warning; 5 homes, 6 outbuildings destroyed [106][107]
Hills Fresno 2,121 August 15 August 24 Lightning-sparked; 1 fatality [108]
River Monterey 48,088 August 16 September 4 Lightning-sparked; 30 structures destroyed; 13 structures damaged; 4 injuries [109]
Dome San Bernardino 43,273 August 16 September 14 Lightning-sparked, Burned in the Mojave National Preserve [110]
Beach Mono 3,780 August 16 August 28 Lightning-sparked [111]
SCU Lightning Complex Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Merced, Stanislaus 396,624 August 16 98% contained, as of September 19 Deer Zone, Marsh, Canyon Zone and other surrounding fires combined into one multi-fire incident by CalFire; all believed to have been sparked by an intense and widespread lightning storm; 222 structures destroyed; 26 structures damaged; 6 injuries. It is the third-largest fire complex in California history. [112]
August Complex Glenn County, California, Mendocino County, California, Lake County, California, Tehama County, California, Trinity County, California 859,966 August 16 39% contained, as of September 23 Lightning strikes started 37 fires, several of which grew to large sizes, especially the Doe Fire; 1 firefighter injury; 1 firefighter fatality. It became the largest fire complex in California history and combined with the Elkhorn Fire on September 10. [113][114]
CZU Lightning Complex San Mateo, Santa Cruz 86,509 August 16 September 22 Several lightning-sparked fires burning close together across San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties; 1,490 structures destroyed; 140 structures damaged; 1 injury; 1 fatality. [115]
Rattlesnake Tulare County, California 2,475 August 16 0% contained, as of September 10 Lightning sparked a slow-growing fire in inaccessible terrain. [116]
Lionshead Jefferson County, Oregon 203,685 August 16 15% contained, as of September 23. Merged into the Beachie Creek Fire and became the Santiam Fire on September 8. [117]
Beachie Creek Linn County, Oregon 192,828 August 16 46% contained, as of September 23. Merged with the Lionshead Fire and became the Santiam Fire on September 8. [118]
Santiam Clackamas County, Oregon, Jefferson County, Oregon, Linn County, Oregon, Marion County, Oregon, Wasco County, Oregon 401,122 September 8 ?% contained, as of September 20 Includes the Lionshead, Beachie Creek, and P-515 Fires, which merged [119][120][121]
Downey Creek Douglas County, Oregon 2,570 August 16 0% contained, as of September 13 [122]
Frog Crook County, Oregon 4,020 August 16 September 1 Caused by lightning [123]
Green Ridge Deschutes County, Oregon 4,338 August 16 September 1 Caused by lightning [124]
Indian Creek Malheur County, Oregon 48,128 August 16 September 16 Caused by lightning [125]
White River Wasco County, Oregon 17,383 August 17 85% contained, as of September 21 [126]
Jones Nevada 705 August 17 August 28 Lightning sparked, 21 structures destroyed, 3 structures damaged, 7 injuries [127]
Sheep Plumas, Lassen 29,570 August 17 September 9 Lightning-sparked, 26 structures destroyed, 1 injury [128][129]
LNU Lightning Complex Colusa, Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Yolo 363,220 August 17 98% contained, as of September 19 Multi-fire incident that includes the Hennessey Fire (305,651 acres), the Walbridge Fire (55,209 acres), and the Meyers Fire (2,360 acres) sparked by lightning; 1,491 structures destroyed; 232 structures damaged; 5 injuries; 5 fatalities. It is the fourth-largest fire complex in California history. [130]
Holser Ventura 3,000 August 17 September 6 [131]
Butte/Tehama/Glenn Lightning Complex (Butte Zone) Butte 19,609 August 17 97% contained as of September 19 Lightning sparked 34 fires throughout Butte County; 14 structures destroyed; 1 structure damaged; 1 injury [132]
North Complex Plumas County, California, Butte County, California, Yuba County, California 301,404 August 17 75% contained, as of September 23 Lightning strikes, includes the Claremont Fire and the Bear Fire; 2,000 structures destroyed; 10 fatalities; 13 injuries; It is the sixth-largest fire complex in California history. [133][134]
Salt Calaveras 1,789 August 18 August 24 Lightning-sparked [135]
W-5 Cold Springs Lassen, Modoc 84,817 August 18 September 14 Lightning-sparked. Fire spread eastward into Washoe County, Nevada. [136]
Carmel Monterey 6,905 August 18 September 4 Lightning-sparked, 73 structures destroyed; 7 structures damaged [137]
Dolan Monterey County, California 128,417 August 18 46% contained, as of September 19 Cause not officially determined; however, a suspect was charged with arson in connection to the fire[138] [139]
Woodward Marin 4,929 August 19 97% contained, as of September 19 Lightning-sparked [140]
SQF Complex Tulare County, California 144,708 August 19 33% contained, as of September 21 Lightning-sparked, contains the Castle Fire and the Shotgun Fire [141]
Laurel Wheeler County, Oregon 1,257 August 19 September 14 [142]
Moc Tuolumne 2,857 August 20 August 30 Lightning-sparked [143]
Slink Mono County, California 26,752 August 29 84% contained, as of September 20 Lightning-sparked [144]
Evans Canyon Kittitas County, Washington 75,817 August 31 90% contained, as of September 12 [145]
Creek Fresno County, California, Madera County, California 289,625 September 4 32% contained, as of September 23 783 structures destroyed, 67 structures damaged; 12 injuries; 1 fatality [146][147][148]
El Dorado Riverside County, California, San Bernardino County, California 22,597 September 5 68% contained, as of September 23 Sparked by a pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party. 10 structures destroyed, 6 structures damaged [149][150]
Valley San Diego County, California 17,093 September 5 95% contained, as of September 20 51 structures destroyed, 11 structures damaged, 2 injuries [151]
Bobcat Los Angeles County, California 113,307 September 6 38% contained, as of September 23 Unknown cause [152]
Cold Springs Okanogan County, Washington 189,923 September 6 95% contained, as of September 20 1 fatality [153][154]
P-515 Jefferson County, Oregon 4,609 September 7 95% contained, as of September 11. Merged into the Lionshead Fire on September 8. [120]
Oak Mendocino County, California 1,100 September 7 September 14 Unknown cause, 25 structures destroyed, 20 structures damaged [155]
Slater/Devil Siskiyou County, California, Del Norte County, California, Josephine County, Oregon 150,230 September 7 24% contained, as of September 23 2 fatalities, 1 structure destroyed [156][157]
Two Four Two Klamath County, Oregon 14,473 September 7 89% contained, as of September 22 [158]
Brattain Lake County, Oregon 50,751 September 7 87% contained, as of September 23 [159]
Holiday Farm Lane County, Oregon 173,094 September 7 22% contained, as of September 22 1 fatality [160]
Echo Mountain Complex Lincoln County, Oregon 2,552 September 7 75% contained, as of September 20 293 structures destroyed, 22 structures damaged [161]
Babb-Maiden/Manning Spokane County, Washington 18,254 September 7 0% contained, as of September 12 [162]
Whitney Lincoln County, Washington 127,430 September 7 95% contained, as of September 16 [163]
Inchelium Complex Ferry County, Washington 19,399 September 7 85% contained, as of September 23 [164]
Pearl Hill Douglas County, Washington 223,730 September 7 94% contained, as of September 16 [165]
Apple Acres Chelan County, Washington 5,500 September 7 99% contained, as of September 16 [166]
Fork El Dorado County, California 1,667 September 8 70% contained, as of September 22 [167]
South Obenchain Jackson County, Oregon 32,671 September 8 70% contained, as of September 22 [168]
Riverside Clackamas County, Oregon 138,027 September 8 31% contained, as of September 23 [169]
Big Hollow Skamania County, Washington 24,995 September 8 15% contained, as of September 16 [170]
Almeda Drive Jackson County, Oregon 3,200 September 8 September 15[171] 2457+ Structures destroyed, 3 fatalities [172][173][56][57]
Chehalem Mountain- Bald Peak Washington County, Oregon 2,000 September 8 September 14 [174][175][176][177][178]
Thielsen Douglas County, Oregon 9,916 September 9 26% contained, as of September 21 [179]
Willow Yuba County, California 1,311 September 9 September 14 41 structures destroyed; 10 structures damaged [180]
Archie Creek Douglas County, Oregon 131,598 September 9 44% contained, as of September 21 [181]
Fox Trinity County, California 2,188 September 14 43% contained as of September 22 [182]
Snow Riverside County, California 6,254 September 17 67% contained as of September 23

Fire policy

Prior to development, California fires regularly burned significantly more acreage than has been seen in recent history. Wildfires have been aggressively suppressed in recent years, resulting in a buildup of fuel, increasing the risk of large uncontrollable fires. There is broad scientific consensus that there should be more controlled burning of forest in California in order to reduce fire risk.[184][185][186] Controlled burning is hampered by wildfire litigation models that present wildfires in court cases as the result of careless ignition events while discounting underlying forest conditions.[187][188] A 2020 ProPublica investigation blames the culture of Cal Fire, greed on the part of fire suppression contractors, and risk aversion on the part of the U.S. Forest Service from preventing appropriate controlled burns from taking place.[189]

Climate change

The Los Angeles Times on 13 September described the fire as a climate apocalypse.

Climate change has led to increased heat waves and the risk of drought in California, creating the conditions for more frequent and severe wildfires.[190][191] It has been observed that since the early 1970s, warm‐season days in California warmed by ca. 1.4 °C. This significantly increases the atmospheric vapor pressure deficit, the difference between the actual and a maximum moisture content for a certain temperature. These trends are consistent with human-induced trends that were simulated by climate models. Summer forest‐fire area reacts to the vapor pressure deficit exponentially, i.e., warming has grown increasingly impactful.[191]

David Romps, director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center summarizes the situation as follows: "To cut to the chase: Were the heat wave and the lightning strikes and the dryness of the vegetation affected by global warming? Absolutely yes. Were they made significantly hotter, more numerous, and drier because of global warming? Yes, likely yes, and yes."[192] Similarly, Friederike Otto, acting director of the University of Oxford Environmental Change Institute states, "There is absolutely no doubt that the extremely high temperatures are higher than they would have been without human-induced climate change. A huge body of attribution literature demonstrates now that climate change is an absolute game-changer when it comes to heat waves, and California won't be the exception."[193] Susan Clark, director of the Sustainability Initiative at the University at Buffalo, states, "This is climate change. This increased intensity and frequency of temperatures and heat waves are part of the projections for the future. [...] There is going to be more morbidity and mortality [from heat.] There are going to be more extremes."[193]

Obstacles to fire control

Secretary of California's Natural Resources Agency Wade Crowfoot urges President Trump to not ignore the science on climate change to which Trump responds "I don't think science knows, actually"[194][195] and "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch."[196]

Rumors about political extremist involvement

Rumors were spread on social media that antifa activists involved in arson and rioting accompanying the nearby George Floyd protests in Portland, Oregon, were deliberately setting fires, and were preparing to loot property that was being evacuated. Some residents refused to evacuate based on the rumors, choosing to defend their homes from the looting. Authorities told residents to ignore the rumors.[197] QAnon followers participated in these claims, with one claim that six antifa activists had been arrested for setting fires specifically amplified by "Q", i.e. "the anonymous person or people behind QAnon".[198][199] Days earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr had amplified social media rumors of preceding months that planes and buses full of antifa activists were preparing to invade communities, allegedly funded by George Soros.[200][201][202][203][204][205]

Rumors also circulated that members of far-right groups such as the Proud Boys had started some of the fires. However, authorities labelled the claims as false, saying that people needed to question claims they found on social media.[206]

There have been multiple arrests for arson surrounding the wildfires in multiple states,[207][208] but there is no indication that the incidents were connected to a mass arson campaign, according to multiple law enforcement officers.[209][210] In Oregon, at least six people have been accused of deliberately starting some of the wildfires, due to mental illness and other reasons, but there was no evidence that their actions were motivated by politics.[211]

COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges for firefighters fighting wildfires due to measures intended to reduce the transmission of the disease. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire) implemented new protocols such as wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing while resting, and reducing the number of occupants in the pickup trucks used to transport firefighters.[212]

California relies heavily on inmate firefighters, with incarcerated people making up nearly a quarter of CAL FIRE's total workforce in 2018–2019.[213] Coronavirus measures within the prison system, such as early release and quarantine policies, have reduced the number of inmate firefighters available, necessitating the hiring of additional seasonal firefighters.[214]

Impacts