When it comes to forest fires, California can’t seem to catch a break.
Last year was a hellacious one for uncontrolled burns, and 2016 is looking just as bad. In the past week, the number of acres scorched by wildfire has tripled from around 32,000 to more than 98,000, according to the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The number of fires the department, known simply as Cal Fire, has responded to is slightly above the seasonal five year average. But it’s early in the fire season. (California’s 2013 Rim Fire, the largest ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada, began in early August and blazed on into October, torching more than 257,000 acres.)
Local, state, and federal firefighters have already dealt with more than 2,400 wildfires so far this season, say’s Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire’s information officer. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Southern California’s Kern County, where the largest of those conflagrations still rages; the Erskine fire covers more than 45,000 acres and is only 40 percent contained. It has killed two people so far, destroying 150 homes and damaging 75.
In recent years, drought conditions have fueled fires across the state. El Niño conditions brought badly needed rain this past winter, but the wetter conditions also begat a bumper crop of grasses that are now reduced to dry fuel. “The rain is always a blessing and a curse,” Berlant says.
In addition, thanks to prolonged drought and hungry bark beetles, California has more than 66 million dead trees, the US Forest Service estimates—more than double last year’s count. In short, the state is a tinderbox.
Ahead of the July 4 weekend, Cal Fire officials warn that they’ll be confiscating illegal fireworks. They’re also urging residents to keep fireworks away from dry, flammable materials. Which should be pretty obvious, but sadly…
— Adam Housley (@adamhousley) June 22, 2016
— Kern County Fire (@kerncountyfire) June 24, 2016
— CAL FIRE (@CAL_FIRE) June 26, 2016
— Chicago Tribune (@chicagotribune) June 26, 2016