The wildfire burning at the southern end of Mendocino National Forest in California is now the largest recorded fire in the state’s history, consuming nearly 300,000 acres and growing. That’s hard to visualize, so we can put it another way: The area that has been consumed is the equivalent of more than seven times the size of Washington, D.C. It’s a bit less than half the size of Rhode Island. The Mendocino Complex Fire, as it’s called, passed the previous record-holder, the Thomas Fire, this week.
It wasn’t an old record: The Thomas Fire burned in December. The other major fire burning in California — the Carr Fire, near Redding — is the 12th largest in the state’s history. Like the Mendocino Complex Fire, it’s also still growing.
The scale of that fire was impressive even more than a week ago.
Those two fires have helped make 2018 one of the most destructive in the state’s modern history. Although the number of fires in 2018 tracks with the number to this point in 2017, the size of the fires is more than twice as large. Data from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, shows how 2018 compares with past years within its jurisdiction in terms of fires. Note that although there were more fires from 1970 to 2000 or so, they didn’t burn as much area.
The dry southeastern part of California and the agriculture-rich Central Valley has not had many wildfires, but the rest of the state has. Visual data from Cal Fire shows that the distribution of the fires is fairly even over the past 80 years, but the scale of the fires has been more significant recently.
President Trump’s response to the fires has been to highlight a long-standing dispute in the state about the allocation of water between conservation, urban areas and agriculture. This may be a function of how important that fight is to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a staunch ally of the president. Several years ago, we looked at how the water fight played out in and around Nunes’s Central Valley district; at the time, the state’s deep drought was making the struggle over water even more acute.
Scientists ascribe the wildfire activity in part to global warming, which would help explain why the problem seems to have gotten worse in recent years. Among the expectations that researchers have from a warming world is that individual wildfires will be more severe than in past years. Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, Bill Stewart, a forestry specialist at the University of California at Berkeley, hinted that Trump’s rhetoric was meant to confuse the issue.
“Fire behavior now is off the charts,” Stewart said. “Trump wants to get climate change off the agenda, and no one seems to be talking about climate change now because everyone wants to know what’s on his mind.”
Authorities in California say that, despite Trump’s assertions, they have enough water to battle the fires. One way in which that water is used, of course, is by dropping it on affected areas.
If you’re curious, this is what that looks like from the ground.
A sight that, hopefully, no Californians are still in the vicinity to experience.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly included wildfire data from prior to 1940, before reliable record-keeping was available. This version has been updated with new graphics and to note that the Mendocino Complex fire is the largest on record.