San Francisco, CA

Northern California fires: Comparing this year's fire season to last year's dystopia

Grace Goes on an Adventure

This time last year, Northern California residents dealt with apocalyptic-level natural disasters.

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A firefighter battles a blaze, part of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire that destroyed 1,490 buildings and over 86,509 acres over 38 days.Stephen Lam/Reuters

From the August Complex Fire along the Coast Range to the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in Santa Cruz County, thousands of families were affected, with billions of dollars in damages and millions of acres of land destroyed. Photos from San Francisco made the global news cycle on Sept. 9th, with residents waking up to an orange sky — a shocking "Blade Runner"-like effect from the smoke and ash of the state's 367 wildfires just that summer. Gov. Gavin Newsom called a state of emergency in mid-August, and was officially granted approval for federal relief in mid-October.

At the time, I was just moving back to California from the East Coast. I had seen news footage (working at a national news syndicate at the time) of what was happening back home, but wasn't aware of just how close it was to my loved ones. As I drove over I-80 from Reno into the Tahoe National Forest — the final stretch of my weeklong drive back — I saw what looked like rain beginning to sprinkle on my rental car's windshield. Rain in early September? Unusual — but ashes from nearby fires? Definitely more likely.

As I squirreled up in an extended stay-style motel to quarantine from my elderly parents, I saw the sky from my window. I was flustered from the truly dystopian view — on top of dealing with the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, there was no chance to go outdoors and get some fresh air; in fact, local health and government officials had strongly urged against it, as the Air Quality Index ranged between 151 and 230.

Looking back on that time now, it almost feels like it was a nightmare — and it was, don't get me wrong. Yet, my family and I were not as drastically affected as many others across the state. From the 2020 fire season — the worst in the state's history, with 9,917 incidents — more than 4,257,863 acres were burned, 10,488 structures were destroyed, and 33 people lost their lives.

This year, CAL Fire has already reported 579,614 acres burned, 400 structures damaged or destroyed, and 6,049 fire incidents. The most dire and widespread fire at this point, the Dixie Fire, has by itself destroyed 489,287 acres; it is only 21% contained as of 8:57 this morning. It is the second-largest fire in the state's history — and it's estimated that it won't be contained until later this month.

Just as we've increasingly experienced over the last few years, these instances should remind us of the growing need to pay attention to climate change and how we can help prevent major catastrophes. The state of California has dealt with increasing drought-like conditions, leading to more dry fuel for potentially widespread fires, and leading to more uncertainty for thousands of Californians as to their safety and homesteads.

As we close out on this year's dangerously high summer temperatures, remember: you can help prepare yourself and your loved ones in advance of future wildfires. We want to ensure we're all protected moving forward — and doing our part to prepare, both for potential wildfires and in changing our habits to slow climate change — will ensure a better future.

Follow Grace on Twitter for more Bay Area updates: @grace_m_stetson.

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Hi there! I'm Grace Stetson, an affordability correspondent and freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I recently moved back to my hometown after a few years of living in Chicago, IL, and Brooklyn, NYC, and there's a lot more to see than I originally expected. With that, I'm going out and about from as far south as Monterey to as far north as Marin to find you the best hidden gems, backwoods trails, and delicious eats across the Bay. Come join me on this adventure!

Sunnyvale, CA
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