More ‘Megafires' Burning California Now Than Ever Before

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

If it seems like wildfires are becoming more frequent and destructive, you’re not imagining it. An analysis of wildfire data obtained by NBC owned television stations shows California has seen more megafires in the last 20 years than the previous 100 years combined.

Megafires are massive blazes that burn more than 100,000 acres. These regionwide disasters used to be a rare occurrence, but now fire crews anticipate at least one every fire season. Some experts say battling megafires will be the new normal moving forward and rather than fighting fires, will have to learn to adapt.

While most wildfires are small, data from Cal Fire dating back to the 1890s shows megafires have grown more frequent and more destructive.

California Megafires Are Exploding in Size and Frequency

Acres burned by megafires (100,000+ acres) by decade.

Source: CalFire. Notes: All megafires shown here are from 1932 onward, when reliable records begin, according to CalFire. For 2021 fires, data as of Nov. 2, 2021.
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Most of these fires are in wildlands but some reach into communities like the Tubbs fire which spread through Santa Rosa in 2017, or the Camp fire which devastated Paradise in 2018.

Cal Fire data shows megafires are also burning millions more acres now compared to decades before.

Sources: Sources: ESRI, CalFire. Notes: All fires shown here are from 1932 onward, when reliable records begin, according to CalFire. For 2021 fires, data as of Oct 21, 2021.
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Cal Fire Captain Robert Foxworthy says Californians should be on alert no matter where you live.    

“If anything, the last two years have proven that it is possible for fires to burn in those populated areas,” Foxworthy said.

UC Riverside geology professor Rich Mennich believes California may be doing more harm than good by battling fires. Mennich argues that fighting fires allows more vegetation to grow, which then becomes fuel for future fires. Mennich believes if we let fires burn off vegetation naturally, we will see a future with smaller less destructive fires. 

“Suppression over 100 years’ time, is producing the megafires that we see today,” Mennich said. “I object to the word fighting. I think we need to learn we are not dealing with a monster in a military fashion. We are looking at an earth surface process that’s always been operational. Literally for millions of years. We need to learn how to work with fire instead of fighting it.”

While some fire officials say the megafires are the result of our changing climate and increased drought conditions, professor Mennich questions that. He insists forest management and fire strategy are bigger factors.

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