Striding through the brown, sun-dried grass on a slope at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Caitlin Cornwall stopped to touch a slender stalk of blue wild rye, crowned by a tasseled seed pod.
The 3,900-acre park in the Mayacamas Mountains near Kenwood was largely overrun by the Nuns fire in October, and the signs of recovery are abundant. Most of the live oak, bay and madrone trees survived; smaller Douglas firs perished and are being dismantled by beetles and woodpeckers.
The grasslands are generally healthier than they were before last fall’s blaze and could readily burn again, said Cornwall, a biologist with Sonoma Ecology Center, which has managed the park since 2012.
“This is all a fire-created natural community,” she said. The park burned in 1964, also by a fire named Nuns.
Indeed, fire shaped the drought-prone landscape for thousands of years, as Native Americans used it to maintain meadows and forests that provided deer, elk and acorns for food as well as grasses for basketry.
But now, climate change has thrown the symbiosis of humans, fire and the landscape into catastrophic disarray. Much of California is a yearround tinderbox, with fast-moving wildfires erupting so quickly this year that firefighters have rushed from one to the next, with the usual peak of the fire season still to come.
“It just takes one spark,” said Scott McLean, a deputy chief with Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting and forestry agency.
As heat-trapping gases continue to pour into the atmosphere and temperatures inch upward, drawing moisture from the soil and vegetation, the state’s vast landscape is growing increasingly volatile, costing lives and billions of dollars in fire damages.
Compounding the menace of climate change, experts say the wildfire situation is only going to get worse.
To say California is in a “new normal,” as Gov. Jerry Brown did last month, is misleading because it implies a steady condition going forward, said LeRoy Westerling, a management professor at UC Merced’s School of Engineering.
Instead, the state faces increasing peril from climate change for several decades to come, he said.
“What we’ve been observing on the ground keeps outpacing what we predict,” Westerling said. “The new abnormal is constant change.”
California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment, released last month, said the Golden State is “one of the most ‘climate-challenged’ regions of North America,” with a historically variable climate that is now seeing “extreme conditions more frequent and severe.”
By century’s end, wildfires larger than 25,000 acres could become 50 percent more frequent if greenhouse gas emissions are not curtailed, the report said.
Harm from heavy rains, drought, rising sea levels and diminishing snowpack are also cited.
Out on the land, the fire toll is already stunning.
Cal Fire estimates wildland fires consumed 1.4 million acres last year, more than double the average of the previous decade.
As bad as 2017 was — with the North Bay wildfires killing 40 people and destroying more than 6,000 homes — fires this year have burned an estimated 1.3 million acres prior to October, the month when many of California’s all-time worst wildfires have raged.
Six of the state’s 20 most destructive fires — measured by structures destroyed — along with five of the 20 deadliest fires and three of the 20 largest, based on acreage, have ignited in 2017 and 2018.
California wildfire history
Year | Number of fires // Acres burned
2018* NA // 1.3 million
2017* NA // 1.4 million
2016 7,349 // 560,815
2015 8,745 // 893,362
2014 7,865 // 555,044
2013 9,907 // 577,675
2012 7,950 // 869,599
2011 7,989 // 126,854
2010 6,554 // 109,529
2009 9,159 // 405,585
2008 4,108 // 1,375,781
2007 9,093 // 1,087,110
*Cal Fire estimates; 2018 to date
Source for all other years: National Interagency Fire Center
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