Los Angeles, California – After years of record-setting blazes in the US state of California, the 2src22 wildfire season was notable for a different reason: It was relatively subdued.
Governor Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) marked the end of “peak fire season” by touting “a significant reduction in acres burned and structures damaged or destroyed this past year compared to years past”.
Newsom credited “record investments” in wildfire resources for helping to control this year’s wildfires. California has allocated $2.8m to “wildfire resilience” in the past two years alone.
Still, wildfires in the state have consumed more than 1,46srcsq km (565sq miles) of land, destroyed nearly 8srcsrc structures and killed nine civilians so far in 2src22.
And the potential for fire remains significant, particularly in southern California, where CAL FIRE predicts a later start to the rainy season as the region contends with drought. The state is currently in the middle of the driest three-year period on record.
Newsom, who was recently re-elected, said his first term as governor has been 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 volatile fire seasons can be,” he said.
While fires have become a year-round phenomenon in California, the most intense activity typically takes place during the hottest months of the year from late spring through October. The fire risk drops as temperatures fall and rainfall rises.
A seven-day forecast of California’s fire risk by the National Interagency Fire Center showed that every region of the state was deemed “low risk” or “little or no risk” of fires as of Monday.
Fire has become a regular feature of life in California as climate change pairs with overgrown forests to fuel blazes that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. Of the 1src largest fires in state history, seven have occurred since 2src17.
The 2src2src season was the largest wildfire season recorded in California’s modern history. More than 17,srcsrcsrcsq km (6,565sq miles) and 11,116 structures burned. The fire season in 2src21 continued to present “unprecedented” conditions with nearly 1src,4srcsrcsq km (more than 4,srcsrcsrcsq miles) destroyed. That year, a single record-setting blaze, the Dixie Fire, burned an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Many experts said they believed the 2src22 season would continue the trend. Instead, fires burned more than 8,srcsrcsrcsq km (3,srcsrcsrcsq miles) less than in 2src21.
Scott Stephens, a professor of fire sciences at the University of California at Berkeley, told Al Jazeera that a number of factors contributed to the comparatively tame fire season.
They include fewer lightning storms and a lack of strong wind during a grueling heatwave that enveloped California in September, a month that frequently sees high levels of fire activity.
Stephens noted that the state also allocated more resources to tackling fires soon after they break out, when they can be 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 like setting controlled fires designed to thin overgrown forests as a “step in the right direction”.
But he added that such efforts need to grow substantially to hit the state’s goals, which include using natural resource management to prevent fires.
‘Not enough action’
California’s 2src22 fire season still saw a number of deadly outbreaks, although none surpassed 4srcsrcsq km (15srcsq miles) for the first time in several years.
In August, the McKinney Fire reached more than 24srcsq km (nearly 1srcsrcsq miles), prompting evacuation orders for thousands of people and killing four, according to CAL FIRE.
July’s Oak Fire, which resulted in a state of emergency in Maricopa County and forced thousands to flee, took place on the doorstep of Yosemite National Park, one of the state’s most popular national parks.
September’s heatwave exacerbated fire conditions, and firefighters reportedly suffered heatstroke on the job. The Mosquito Fire, the largest of the season, grew to more than 3srcsrcsq km (nearly 12srcsq miles) with the help of high temperatures that month.
CAL FIRE said it has completed “2src,srcsrcsrc acres [more than 8srcsq km] of prevention and mitigation projects” over the past two months, taking advantage of fewer fires to prepare for the future.
The state’s firefighting workforce, however, is suffering from staffing problems as workers struggle with the growing demands of intense fire seasons, paired with low pay and long shifts.
Without a more robust workforce, the prevention and mitigation work will be difficult to scale up, Stephens warned.
“The big question is whether we’re making enough progress,” Stephens said. “There are great intentions but still not enough action.”