California’s late-season wildfires have torched 84,000 acres — and are spreading fast

Massive infernos are again raging in the Golden State as late-season winds pick up speed and spread walls of flames. As of Friday afternoon, a major fire is raging in the northern part of the state, and two large blazes are burning in Southern California. All three are poised to grow, threatening more lives and property.

The Camp Fire near Chico has torched more than 70,000 acres and thousands of buildings since igniting Thursday morning. At one point, it grew in size at a rate of one football field per second. The fire has killed at least five people trapped in a vehicle and injured three firefighters. Paradise, home to 26,000, was almost entirely laid to waste by the fire.

“The town is devastated, everything is destroyed,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) spokesperson Scott Maclean told Reuters. “There’s nothing much left standing.”

You can see the massive smoke clouds in this satellite photo (the red is infrared heat, not actual flames):

The fire has already forced more than 30,000 people to evacuate, some so quickly that they had to leave on foot. Towering plumes of smoke, soot, and ash filled the skies and spread to communities hundreds of miles away like Santa Rosa, the site of last year’s Tubbs Fire, the most destructive blaze in state history. As of Friday afternoon, the blaze is just 5 percent contained.

Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, who is currently serving as acting governor while Gov. Jerry Brown is traveling, declared a state of emergency for the region and requested federal aid.

Farther south, two other blazes ignited Thursday near Los Angeles and turned the sky orange. The Woolsey Fire has burned 14,000 acres so far, while the Hill Fire has expanded to 6,100 acres. Seasonal Santa Ana winds with gusts up to 60 miles per hour have rapidly spread the flames. Both of these fires are in Ventura County, where the 282,000-acre Thomas Fire burned late last year.

This is actually the second round of big, dangerous fires in California this year. The Thomas Fire was only extinguished in January. Then the gargantuan Mendocino Complex Fire sparked and burned more than 459,000 acres in July. And in August, the deadly Carr Fire started in Shasta County.

You can see the current rash of fires in this map from Cal Fire:

If this seems like a pattern, it is. And it is poised to get worse in many parts of the state as average temperatures rise with climate change.

But remember that wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem. They provide a vital service to forests and grasslands, clearing out decaying brush and helping plants germinate. However, the massive wildfires we’ve seen in recent years are hardly natural; humans have made them worse at every step.

For one thing, people are building increasingly closer to grasslands and forests that regularly burn. This increases the likelihood of people igniting fires and the damage from the fires that do occur. Humans already ignite the vast majority of wildfires. Active fire suppression tactics have also prevented smaller fires from burning, allowing fuel to accumulate and drive surging conflagrations.

Human activity is also changing the climate. Warmer temperatures have caused forests in the western United States to dry out, killing off 129 million trees in California alone, leaving many regions littered in dry fuel.

As such, fire officials no longer talk about fire seasons but fire years. According to Cal Fire, California has seen almost double the area burned across its service territory than at the same time last year. More than 1.3 million acres have burned throughout the state this year and more than 8.3 million acres across the United States as a whole.

The National Weather Service reported that winds have slowed down in Northern California, which should give firefighters some relief and slow the spread of the Camp Fire. But in Southern California, winds are likely to pick up and continue blowing over the weekend, so the fires are likely to grow.