California Wildfires Have Consumed Less Land This Year, But Historically Active Months Are Still Ahead

Chris Dolce
Published: August 20, 2019
California wildfire statistics so far in 2019 compared to the same time in 2018 and the 5-year average.

California's wildfires have been much tamer so far this year, but some of the most active months of the season are still ahead.

By this time last year, California was already deep into its worst year of wildfires on record. By mid-August 2018, 972 square miles (621,784 acres) had been charred by wildfires in the Golden State, according to CalFire. This year, just 38 square miles (24,579 acres) have burned, or about 95% less than a year ago.

A wet winter and spring have likely helped suppress the fire season so far by preventing fuels such as vegetation and brush from drying out too quickly. California had its 12th wettest January-May in records dating to 1895, according to NOAA, and the state's June-July period was the coolest since 2012.

CalFire spokesman Scott McLean told the Associated Press that alternating periods of hot and cooler temperatures and less wind have also helped to keep this year's fire season in check so far.

Satellite view of Northern California on Aug. 18, 2018, compared to Aug. 18, 2019. Notice the widespread smoke in place a year ago.

While the short-term wildfire situation is good news, some of the most active months of fire season are still ahead.

Vegetation in early fall is primed to burn because the state is emerging from the annual summer dry season.

California's infamous offshore winds, known locally as Santa Ana (southern California) or Diablo (northern California) winds, also typically kick into gear during fall, according to a 2017 climatology study.

The dry and windy conditions can fuel ongoing wildfires and also cause newly-ignited fires to spread rapidly.

A typical Santa Ana (or Diablo) wind set up in California.

It's the reason 16 of the top 20 most destructive fires in California's history have occurred in the fall months of September through November. The most destructive fire on that list is the Camp Fire, which destroyed 18,804 structures and killed 86 people in Butte County in November 2018.

(MORE: Why California's Wildfires Are Most Destructive in Fall

Above-average wildfire activity is expected this fall in portions of California, according to the National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook issued on Aug. 1.

The outlook said there is an abundance of fine fuels for wildfires to burn through in lower to middle elevations of the state. Fine fuels include grass, leaves, draped pine needles, fern, tree moss and some kinds of slash, according to the USDA Forest Service. Those fuels easily ignite, and wildfires can burn through them quickly when they are dry.


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