Much was made of the fact that the two wildfire complexes in the North and South/East Bay last month had grown to become the second and third largest wildfires in California history. But 2020 is set to add more record-huge blazes to that list before the year is out, and the August Complex fires burning in Mendocino National Forest have now surpassed both the LNU and SCU complexes in size to become the second-largest wildfire in state history.
The August Complex fires, beginning as 37 separate blazes which were sparked in the same barrage of lightning strikes that caused the Bay Area fire complexes on August 17, continue burning and overtook even more land and dry fuels during the wind events earlier this week. The fire complex has now consumed 421,899 acres — 659 square miles — just 39,000 acres shy of the 460,000 consumed by the largest fire on record, the Mendocino Complex of 2018 — which also burned in the same general vicinity of the Mendocino National Forest.
The SCU Lightning Complex currently stands at 396,624 acres, while the LNU Lightning Complex stands at 363,220 acres, and they are 97- and 94-percent contained, respectively. The North Complex up in Plumas and Butte counties has scorched a lot of ground in the past three days, and if it makes another run it could reach record territory as well — though it now stands at just under 250,000 acres.
The rise of the August Complex in size also means that the five largest fires in recorded state history have all occurred in the last three years, and that doesn't include the most destructive and deadly — the Camp Fire — two years ago.
"The fact that the August Complex is still actively burning and the fact that we still have several more months of fire season ahead of us [means] it’s very likely that this year’s records will continue to be broken," says Cal Fire's Daniel Berlant, speaking to the Chronicle this week.
More than two million acres have burned across California since the beginning of the year, giving us a record-bad fire year to couple with the unprecedented (for most everyone alive) global pandemic with which we're also saddled.
Experts continue to say that the state must do more to manage its forest and conduct controlled burns in the wetter months to use up the fuel that causes these mega-fires to grow. It's estimated that in prehistoric California, 4 million to 12 million acres would burn every year, just from lightning strikes and natural processes.
The journal Nature published a study last year that talked about the need for new modes of "adaptive resilience" and "transformative resilience" in social–ecological systems in order to address the growing combined threats of climate change and wildfires. And as the New York Times reports today, while more controlled burning is being encouraged and talked about on the west coast, it's a daunting undertaking in a state as large as California. Some experts estimate it would take burning 20 million acres to counteract the mistakes of fire suppression efforts in past decades.
The alternative to starting these programs is a decade ahead where every August to October/November looks like it does right now outside, and more entire towns or neighborhoods will be leveled by fire.
Photo from the 2018 Mendocino Complex by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images