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|2020 Western United States wildfires|
September 9 satellite image of the wildfires burning in California and Oregon
|Location||Western United States|
|Total area||Over 6,609,880.1 acres (2,674,923.6 ha)|
|Cost||>$1.7 billion (2020 USD)|
|Date(s)||July 24, 2020– ongoing|
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 megafires, burning more than 6.6 million acres (2.7 million hectares) of land, mobilizing tens of thousands of firefighters, razing thousands of buildings, and killing at least 37 people. Climate change and poor forest management practices contributed to the severity of the wildfires.
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, alongside the development of human societies practicing cultural burns. Various Indigenous controlled fire practices have been curtailed and outlawed since European colonization of the Americas, such as through the Weeks Act, which brought paradigmatic changes in ecosystem priorities and management.[better source needed]
Land was protected from fire, and vegetation accumulated near settlements, increasing the risk of explosive, smoky conflagrations. Karuk and other aboriginal fire-keepers have passed down knowledge of vegetation clearing practices. In the last few decades, these cultural memories has been acknowledged by the United States Forest Service, NOAA, and other agencies in American colonial nations.
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. With the advent of the worldwide, widespread increased burning of fossil fuels the climate has changed, and the globe has heated by around 1 degree C.
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.— United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, September 14, 2020
California was the first to call out a warning. 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. 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. 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.
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:
Note: Check primary sources for up-to-date statistics.
|Coordination Center||Acres||Hectares||Suppression Costs||Structures Destroyed|
|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|
|Rocky Mountain Area||480,662.8||194,517.3||$156,241,217.34||73|
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)). 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.
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. 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. 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.
Between August 14 and 16, Northern California was subjected to record-breaking warm temperatures, 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 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, 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. The largest of the fires in the Olympics reached 2.4 acres (0.97 ha) by August 20.
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. By September 6, it had burned almost 76,000 acres (31,000 ha).
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).
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. The North Complex increased in size as the winds fanned it westward, threatening the city of Oroville, and triggering mass evacuations. 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). As of September 13, 3,200,000 acres (1,300,000 ha) had burned in the state.
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. 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. Smoke blanketed the Seattle area on September 8 and caused unhealthy air conditions throughout the Puget Sound region, and affected Southwest British Columbia.
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. On September 11, authorities said they were preparing for a mass fatality incident. As of September 11, 600 homes and 100 commercial buildings have been destroyed by the Almeda Drive Fire. Officials stated that the Almeda Drive Fire was human-caused. 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. A separate criminal investigation into the origin point of the Almeda Drive Fire in Ashland is ongoing.
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.
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. 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.
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 because of the uncontained Almeda Drive Fire, which was fast encroaching on their city. 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.
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 County, California||2,060||May 3||May 7|||
|Range||San Luis Obispo County, California||5,000||May 27||May 28|||
|Scorpion||Santa Barbara County, California||1,395||May 31||June 1|||
|Quail||Solano County, California||1,837||June 6||June 10||3 structures destroyed|||
|Wood||San Diego County, California||11,000||June 8||June 12||Burned on Camp Pendleton|||
|India||San Diego County, California||1,100||June 8||June 14||Burned on Camp Pendleton|||
|Soda||San Luis Obispo County, California||1,672||June 10||June 11||2 structures destroyed|||
|Grant||Sacramento County, California||5,042||June 12||June 17||1 structure damaged|||
|Walker||Calaveras County, California||1,455||June 16||June 20||2 structures destroyed|||
|River||San Luis Obispo County, California||15||June 22||June 23||2 structures destroyed, 9 damaged|||
|Grade||Tulare County, California||1,050||June 22||June 26|||
|Pass||Merced County, California||2,192||June 28||June 30|||
|Bena||Kern County, California||2,900||July 1||July 3|||
|Crews||Santa Clara County, California||5,513||July 5||July 13||1 structure destroyed; 1 damaged; 1 injury. Resulted in evacuations of rural Gilroy.|||
|Soledad||Los Angeles County, California||1,525||July 5||July 15||1 injury|||
|Mineral||Fresno County, California||29,667||July 13||July 26||7 structures destroyed|||
|Coyote||San Benito County, California||1,508||July 15||July 18|||
|Hog||Lassen County, California||9,564||July 18||August 8||2 structures destroyed|||
|Gold||Lassen County, California||22,634||July 20||August 8||13 structures destroyed; 5 structures damaged; 2 firefighters injured in burnover|||
|July Complex 2020||Modoc County, Siskiyou County, California||83,261||July 22||August 7||1 structure destroyed; 3 outbuildings destroyed|||
|Blue Jay||Mariposa County, Tuolumne County, California||4,598||July 24||50% contained as of September 24||Lightning-sparked|||
|Red Salmon Complex||Humboldt County, Siskiyou County, Trinity County, California||110,113||July 26||31% contained as of September 25||Originally started as both the Red and Salmon fire (both started by lightning strikes), but have since merged into one fire|||
|Chikamin||Chelan County, Washington||1,685||July 31||September 24|||
|Apple||Riverside County, California||33,424||July 31||95% contained as of September 16||4 structures destroyed; 8 outbuildings destroyed; 4 injuries|||
|Pond||San Luis Obispo County, California||1,962||August 1||August 8||1 structure destroyed; 1 damaged; 13 outbuildings destroyed|||
|North||Lassen County, California||6,882||August 2||August 10||6,882 acres in total, of which approximately 4,105 acres burned in Washoe County, Nevada|||
|Stagecoach||Kern County, California||7,760||August 3||August 16||23 structures destroyed; 4 damaged; 25 outbuildings destroyed; 2 damaged; 1 firefighter fatality|||
|Neals Hill||Harney County, Oregon||3,391||August 5||August 20||Caused by lightning|||
|Wolf||Mariposa County, Tuolumne County, California||1,077||August 11||35% contained as of September 24||Lightning-sparked|||
|Lake||Los Angeles County, California||31,089||August 12||95% contained as of September 19||Lightning-sparked, 33 structures destroyed; 6 damaged; 21 outbuildings destroyed; 2 injuries|||
|Ranch 2||Los Angeles County, California||4,237||August 13||96% contained as of September 18||Lightning-sparked|||
|Loyalton||Lassen County, Plumas County, Sierra County, California||47,029||August 15||September 14||Lightning-sparked, Caused National Weather Service to issue first ever Fire Tornado Warning; 5 homes, 6 outbuildings destroyed|||
|Hills||Fresno County, California||2,121||August 15||August 24||Lightning-sparked; 1 fatality|||
|River||Monterey County, California||48,088||August 16||September 4||Lightning-sparked; 30 structures destroyed; 13 structures damaged; 4 injuries|||
|Dome||San Bernardino County, California||43,273||August 16||September 14||Lightning-sparked, Burned in the Mojave National Preserve|||
|Beach||Mono County, California||3,780||August 16||August 28||Lightning-sparked|||
|SCU Lightning Complex||Santa Clara County, Alameda County, Contra Costa County, San Joaquin County, Merced County, Stanislaus County, California||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.|||
|August Complex||Glenn County, Mendocino County, Lake County, Tehama County, Trinity County, California||870,200||August 16||43% contained, as of September 26||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.|||
|CZU Lightning Complex||San Mateo County, Santa Cruz County, California||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.|||
|Rattlesnake||Tulare County, California||4,070||August 16||0% contained, as of September 10||Lightning sparked a slow-growing fire in inaccessible terrain.|||
|Lionshead||Jefferson County, Oregon||204,340||August 16||28% contained, as of September 25. Merged into the Beachie Creek Fire and became the Santiam Fire on September 8.|||
|Beachie Creek||Linn County, Oregon||192,838||August 16||52% contained, as of September 25. Merged with the Lionshead Fire and became the Santiam Fire on September 8.|||
|Santiam||Clackamas County, Jefferson County, Linn County, Marion County, Wasco County, Oregon||401,787||September 8||28+% contained, as of September 25||Includes the Lionshead, Beachie Creek, and P-515 Fires, which merged|||
|Downey Creek||Douglas County, Oregon||2,570||August 16||0% contained, as of September 13|||
|Frog||Crook County, Oregon||4,020||August 16||September 1||Caused by lightning|||
|Green Ridge||Deschutes County, Oregon||4,338||August 16||September 1||Caused by lightning|||
|Indian Creek||Malheur County, Oregon||48,128||August 16||September 16||Caused by lightning|||
|White River||Wasco County, Oregon||17,383||August 17||85% contained, as of September 21|||
|Jones||Nevada County, California||705||August 17||August 28||Lightning sparked, 21 structures destroyed, 3 structures damaged, 7 injuries|||
|Sheep||Plumas County, Lassen County, California||29,570||August 17||September 9||Lightning-sparked, 26 structures destroyed, 1 injury|||
|LNU Lightning Complex||Colusa County, Lake County, Napa County, Sonoma County, Solano County, Yolo County, California||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.|||
|Holser||Ventura County, California||3,000||August 17||September 6|||
|Butte/Tehama/Glenn Lightning Complex (Butte Zone)||Butte County, California||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|||
|North Complex||Plumas County, Butte County, Yuba County, California||304,881||August 17||78% contained, as of September 24||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.|||
|Salt||Calaveras County, California||1,789||August 18||August 24||Lightning-sparked|||
|W-5 Cold Springs||Lassen County, Modoc County, California||84,817||August 18||September 14||Lightning-sparked. Fire spread eastward into Washoe County, Nevada.|||
|Carmel||Monterey County, California||6,905||August 18||September 4||Lightning-sparked, 73 structures destroyed; 7 structures damaged|||
|Dolan||Monterey County, California||128,417||August 18||57% contained, as of September 26||Cause not officially determined; however, a suspect was charged with arson in connection to the fire|||
|Woodward||Marin County, California||4,929||August 18||97% contained, as of September 19||Lightning-sparked|||
|SQF Complex||Tulare County, California||148,850||August 19||36% contained, as of September 25||Lightning-sparked, contains the Castle Fire and the Shotgun Fire|||
|Laurel||Wheeler County, Oregon||1,257||August 19||September 14|||
|Moc||Tuolumne County, California||2,857||August 20||August 30||Lightning-sparked|||
|Slink||Mono County, California||26,759||August 29||86% contained, as of September 24||Lightning-sparked|||
|Evans Canyon||Kittitas County, Washington||75,817||August 31||90% contained, as of September 12|||
|Creek||Fresno County, Madera County, California||292,172||September 4||36% contained, as of September 25||855 structures destroyed, 71 structures damaged; 12 injuries; 1 fatality|||
|El Dorado||Riverside County, San Bernardino County, California||22,616||September 5||83% contained, as of September 26||Sparked by a pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party. 10 structures destroyed, 6 structures damaged|||
|Valley||San Diego County, California||16,390||September 5||September 24||51 structures destroyed, 11 structures damaged, 2 injuries|||
|Bobcat||Los Angeles County, California||114,004||September 6||61% contained, as of September 26||Unknown cause|||
|Cold Springs||Okanogan County, Washington||189,923||September 6||95% contained, as of September 20||1 fatality|||
|P-515||Jefferson County, Oregon||4,609||September 7||95% contained, as of September 11. Merged into the Lionshead Fire on September 8.|||
|Oak||Mendocino County, California||1,100||September 7||September 14||Unknown cause, 25 structures destroyed, 20 structures damaged|||
|Slater/Devil||Siskiyou County, Del Norte County, California, Josephine County, Oregon||153,850||September 7||25% contained, as of September 25||2 fatalities, 1 structure destroyed|||
|Two Four Two||Klamath County, Oregon||14,473||September 7||89% contained, as of September 22|||
|Brattain||Lake County, Oregon||50,951||September 7||90% contained, as of September 24|||
|Holiday Farm||Lane County, Oregon||173,094||September 7||45% contained, as of September 26||1 fatality|||
|Echo Mountain Complex||Lincoln County, Oregon||2,552||September 7||75% contained, as of September 20||293 structures destroyed, 22 structures damaged|||
|Babb-Maiden/Manning||Spokane County, Washington||18,254||September 7||90% contained, as of September 24|||
|Whitney||Lincoln County, Washington||127,430||September 7||95% contained, as of September 16|||
|Inchelium Complex||Ferry County, Washington||19,399||September 7||85% contained, as of September 23|||
|Pearl Hill||Douglas County, Washington||223,730||September 7||94% contained, as of September 16|||
|Apple Acres||Chelan County, Washington||5,500||September 7||99% contained, as of September 16|||
|Fork||El Dorado County, California||1,667||September 8||70% contained, as of September 22|||
|South Obenchain||Jackson County, Oregon||32,671||September 8||95% contained, as of September 26|||
|Riverside||Clackamas County, Oregon||138,029||September 8||34% contained, as of September 24|||
|Big Hollow||Skamania County, Washington||24,995||September 8||40% contained, as of September 26|||
|Almeda Drive||Jackson County, Oregon||3,200||September 8||September 15||2457+ Structures destroyed, 3 fatalities|||
|Chehalem Mountain- Bald Peak||Washington County, Oregon||2,000||September 8||September 14|||
|Thielsen||Douglas County, Oregon||9,971||September 9||69% contained, as of September 26|||
|Willow||Yuba County, California||1,311||September 9||September 14||41 structures destroyed; 10 structures damaged|||
|Archie Creek||Douglas County, Oregon||131,642||September 9||64% contained, as of September 26|||
|Bullfrog||Fresno County, California||1,185||September 9||45% contained, as of September 26|||
|Fox||Trinity County, California||2,188||September 14||83% contained as of September 26|||
|Snow||Riverside County, California||6,254||September 17||90% contained as of September 26|||
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. 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. 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.
Climate change has led to increased heat waves and the risk of drought in California, creating the conditions for more frequent and severe wildfires. 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.
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." 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." 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."
Rumors were spread on social media that far-left antifa rioters involved in the arson and vandalism 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 invasion. Authorities told residents to ignore the rumors and abandon their property. QAnon followers participated in spreading the rumors, with one claim that six antifa activists had been arrested for setting fires specifically amplified by "Q", the anonymous person or people behind QAnon. 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, funded by George Soros.
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.
There have been a number of arrests for arson surrounding the wildfires, but there is no indication that the incidents were connected to a mass arson campaign, according to some law enforcement officers.
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.
California relies heavily on inmate firefighters, with incarcerated people making up nearly a quarter of CAL FIRE's total workforce in 2018–2019. 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.
In Oregon, wildfires throughout the whole year, with most occurring in September, charred a record of 1,000,000 acres (4,000 km2), destroying a total of 4,800 structures, including 1,145 homes, and killing 9 people. In Washington, 2020 wildfires burned 800,000 acres (3,200 km2), with 418 structures, including 195 homes, burned. In California, about 3,300,000 acres (13,000 km2) burned from wildfires in 2020, the highest burned acreage ever recorded in a fire season. About 2,100,000 acres (8,500 km2) burned in the August lighting wildfires and 1,000,000 acres (4,000 km2) more in September. 4,200 structures were destroyed the whole year in California, and 25 people were killed.
The fires resulted in worsened air pollution across much of the western U.S. and Canada, from Los Angeles to British Columbia. Alaska Airlines suspended its flights from Portland, Oregon, and Spokane, Washington, due to poor air quality. Some cities in Oregon recorded air quality readings of over 500 on the AQI scale, while readings of over 200 were recorded in major cities. Smoke from the fires were carried to the East Coast, causing yellowed skies but having little impact on air quality.
The heavy smoke had resulted in several smoke-related incidents. In California, for example, a San Francisco resident was hiking through Yosemite National Park on September 5 when suddenly the sky turned a dark, ugly color and the temperature dropped greatly, reminiscent of a thunderstorm. Ash and smoke started falling, and this erratic weather was caused by the nearby Creek Fire. In another incident, an Oakland A's player was at a game at the Seattle Mariners' stadium, when suddenly in the middle of the game he started gasping for air.
The unique sagebrush scrub habitat of the Columbia Basin in Washington was heavily affected by the fires, devastating populations of the endemic Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit and endangered, isolated populations of greater sage-grouse and Columbian sharp-tailed grouse. About half of the pygmy rabbit population and over 30-70% of the grouse population may have been lost to the fires, reversing decades of conservation work. Aside from climate change, the spread of the fires may have been assisted by the intrusion of invasive cheatgrass into the habitats. Fires in old-growth forests of Oregon may negatively affect the populations of the endangered northern spotted owl and pine marten, and the resulting ash from the fires may be washed into streams and threaten endangered salmon. Climate change also reduces the likelihood of forests re-establishing themselves after a fire.
Since August 20, a mass mortality event of migratory birds has been reported in the Southwestern United States, especially New Mexico, with hundreds of thousands to potentially millions of birds being affected. The majority of deceased birds are insectivorous ones including warblers, tyrant-flycatchers, and swallows, and are likely migrants from outside the region, as resident birds have not been affected. Of these, violet-green swallows represented the vast majority of deceased birds, at over 85%. Although the exact causes are as of yet unknown and under review, it has been theorized that the birds originated from areas affected by the fires and had their migration patterns altered by both the fires and a major cold front, forcing them into drought-stricken desert areas where they were unable to find food and eventually died from exhaustion. Smoke inhalation from the fires may have also played a part. However, an analysis later in the month by the American Birding Association found the cold front to be the most likely cause of the deaths, with the fires playing a minimal impact, if any.
Climatically, there are fire-prone ecosystems on nearly every continent that evolved natural fire regimes regionally (Bond et al. 2005). Within many of the fire-prone ecosystems, Indigenous adaptations for burning and resultant cultural fire regimes, as coupled socio-ecological systems, reflected their need to "learn to live with fire" (Spies et al. 2014; McWethy et al 2013). Spatially, Indigenous fire stewardship practices had the highest influence around settlements, their wildland-urban interface (e.g., permanent villages, seasonal camps) and travel corridors (i.e., trails and roads) that linked with more intensively managed habitats containing food, material-fiber/basketry, wildlife/prey, and other desired resources (Turner et al. 2003). Frequent and diversified Indigenous burning coupled with natural ignitions reduced fuel loading, which often lowered the intensity and resultant severity of subsequent fires. As such, burning increased the proportion of fire-adapted vegetation (biodiversity) and heterogeneous habitats (mosaics) which greatly reduced the threat of and impacts of non-desired wildfires (Mistry et al. 2016). ... Indigenous knowledge is the broader aspects of individual, family, and community's cultural learning, understanding, and beliefs regarding metaphysical and biophysical relationships of people and their environment. Such knowledge encompasses a wide range of historical and contemporary relationships Indigenous peoples have with the world - including fire. / In Indigenous cultures, resilience is considered as a holistic concept - everything is related (Berkes and Ross 2003; Turner et al. 2003). Indigenous peoples believe they have a responsibility passed down from their Creator to be stewards of the land. In relation to wildland fire - physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health are tied to the health of the Earth. Many Indigenous cultures cannot be resilient without a healthy landscape to exercise cultural fire-related practices on.
Scholars have noted parallel experiences of Indigenous groups when they came into contact with European conquerors. Bans on burning came into force in both Australia and California after colonization, and natives were punished if they persisted in burning. This attitude toward fire was later manifested in public admonitions such as the Smokey Bear campaigns warning against setting wildfires. For more than a century, the policy of the United States has been to “eliminate every fire,” said Leaf Hillman, a member of the Karuk tribe who is active in fire activities. “It’s catching up with us now and we are paying the price for it.”
Fifty-seven percent of California’s 33 million acres of forest are controlled by the federal government.
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