California’s extraordinary year of wildfires has spawned another new milestone – the first “gigafire”, a blaze spanning 1m acres, in modern history.
On Monday, the August complex fire in northern California expanded beyond 1m acres, elevating it from a mere “megafire” to a new classification, “gigafire”, never used before in a contemporary setting in the state.
At 1.03m acres, the fire is larger than the state of Rhode Island and is raging across seven counties, according to fire agency Cal Fire. An amalgamation of several fires caused when lightning struck dry forests in August, the massive conflagration has been burning for 50 days and is only half-contained.
The August complex fire heads a list of huge fires that have chewed through 4m acres of California this year, a figure called “mind-boggling” by Cal Fire and double the previous annual record. Five of the six largest fires ever recorded in the state have occurred in 2020, resulting in several dozen deaths and thousands of lost buildings.
There is little sign of California’s biggest ever fire season receding, with above-average temperatures expected this week. The state endure a heatwave this summer, aiding the formation of enormous wildfires even without the seasonal winds that usually fan the blazes that have historically dotted the west coast.
Vast, out-of-control fires are increasingly a feature in the US west due to the climate crisis, scientists say, with rising temperatures and prolonged drought causing vegetation and soils to lose moisture.
This parched landscape makes larger fires far more likely. Big wildfires are three times more common across the west than in the 1970s, while the wildfire season is three months longer, according to an analysis by Climate Central.
“We predicted last year that we were living with the chance of such an extreme event under our current climate,” said Jennifer Balch, a fire ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Don’t need a crystal ball.”
The 2020 fire season has seen choking smoke blanket the west coast and at times blot out the sun. But experts warn this year may soon seem mild by comparison as the world continues to heat up due to the release of greenhouse gases from human activity.
“If you don’t like all of the climate disasters happening in 2020, I have some bad news for you about the rest of your life,” said Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University.