California’s Devastating Wildfire Season Bucks National Trend

Several national outlets have recently reported that this year was a ‘quiet year’ for wildfires, and although that may be true for states like Colorado, this was definitely not the case in California.

This year California has already had 7,479 wildfires. That is 303 more than the annual total from 2013. Some large fires of note from 2014 include:

  • King Fire in El Dorado National Forest that burned 98,000-acres
  • Happy Camp Complex Fires in Klamath National Forest that burned 133,000-acres
  • Boles Fire in the City of weed that destroyed 165 residences & commercial properties

As of November 13, California’s wildfires have charred over 530,794 acres and destroyed countless homes, killed and displaced wildlife, damaged infrastructure, and increased air and water pollution. These numbers are nearly as bad as last year’s 577,675 scorched acreage. 2014 is on track to be California’s driest year on record and could lead to more wildfires and more acres burned than the 2013 figures.

For most of 2014, California had over 50% percent of the state in ‘exceptional drought’, the highest level of drought ranking assigned by the United States Drought Monitor and The National Weather Service predicts there is a 99% chance that 2014 will end up being California’s warmest year on record. With all-time temperature highs, extreme levels of drought, and 6 weeks left in the calendar year, California fire season is growing and could last the entire year.

These wildfires have also cost the state more money than in previous years. While it is not unheard of for California to outspend its allotted budget for fighting wildfires, this year, the state set aside more money than usual. However, by September, the $209 million budget had been depleted and Gov. Jerry Brown pulled $70 million out of the state’s disaster fund to help firefighting efforts. The money paid for things like water, personnel, and flame retardant. For example, the devastating Kings fire used 210,000 gallons of water, and 450,000 gallons of fire retardant to help fight the fire in one day, which was threatening nearby communities. According to Unit Chief Mike Kaslin of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, “We’re literally setting a world record with respect to retardant drops and use on this fire.”

While fighting fires is a huge drain of our state and federal budgets, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy highlights a more comprehensive quantification of the costs of extreme fire events, including impacts on health, tourism, insurance, and utilities in their latest report. These cost are just as damaging to the environment and the economy as the fire itself and the costs soar well into the billions. For example, the State of the Sierra Forests report found that without factoring in structure damage and tourism losses, the suppression costs and damage to San Francisco Public Utility Commission infrastructure from the Rim Fire topped $150 million alone.

With numbers like these, it is wrong to suggest that the fire season in California has been ‘quiet.’ In fact, 2014 has been nothing short of a disaster for areas hit by these massive blazes. Gov. Jerry Brown even declared a State of Emergency due to the unprecedented number of fires this year.