The McKinney Fire in far northern California has so far burned more than 55,000 acres—an area more than one and a half times the size of San Francisco—making it the largest wildfire in the state so far this year. The fire has been blamed for the deaths of two people who were found Sunday in a burned out vehicle.
The McKinney Fire, along with the 19,000-acre Oak Fire near Yosemite National Park, show that the California wildfire season is ramping up once again. A heat wave across the Pacific Northwest and years of drought that have resulted in very dry fuel in forests—both of which experts say are made worse by climate change—are creating conditions for bigger, more frequent, and more unpredictable fires across California this year.
There are currently 60 active large wildfires burning across 14 states nationwide—engulfing about 1.6 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). More than 5.7 million acres have been burned so far this year—more than 85% higher than at this point last year, and more than at this point in any year since 2015.
Here’s what you need to know about California’s wildfires so far this year.
What we know about the McKinney fire so far
The McKinney Fire began to burn in the Klamath National Forest in Siskiyou County on July 29. There are now about 1,400 personnel working on the ground, according to fire officials. Firefighters initially believed the fire had begun to subside, but its magnitude significantly increased around midnight on Saturday as thunderstorms and dry fuel pushed the fire north toward the Oregon state line.
On July 30, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for the county, opening access to additional resources, including increased emergency response. Nearly 2,000 residents have been forced to evacuate their homes. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning through Tuesday, which advised residents that lightning and strongs winds could result in extreme fire behavior. More than 4,500 buildings are under threat from the McKinney Fire.
The Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that two people have died after their bodies were found inside a burned vehicle in the path of the McKinney fire west of Klamath River, Calif.
Authorities have not yet determined what started the fire, but experts say the big-picture cause of the large blaze is clear. A multi-year drought, high temperatures, low moisture levels in the fuel sources, dry vegetation, and wind all contributed to dramatically increase the risk of wildfire, says Noah Diffenbaugh, Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
Rainfall helped keep the McKinney Fire’s growth minimal on Monday, and authorities say the edges of the fire haven’t spread on Monday or Tuesday due to cooler temperature and cloudy skies. Firefighters are still working to prevent the fire from impacting Yreka and Fort Jones, two nearby towns.
The fire remained 0% contained as of Tuesday morning.
This year’s dangerous wildfire season
The NIFC reports that there have been more than 5.7 million acres burned so far this year, with more than 39,000 fires recorded. That’s more than the area burned in all of 2019. And the number of fires is sure to increase—mirroring the upward trend seen in years including 2015, 2017 and 2020, when more than 10 million acres were engulfed by wildfires.
California is especially at risk. Its wildfire seasons are typically much longer than other states in the West, according to LeRoy Westerling, the director of the Center for Climate Communication at University of California, Merced. “Compared to what we historically thought of as normal, the risks are much higher than they used to be,” Westerling says. “We have warmer temperatures which means more evaporation and that dries up fuels to make them more flammable, and it also makes earlier snow melt at higher elevations, so that can push the start of a fire season earlier.”
An analysis of California’s current wildfire season by Cal Fire found that the state has continued to experience conditions that make wildfires more likely. Minimal precipitation caused moderate to extreme drought conditions even before the summer began, keeping fuel moisture levels low—increasing flammability— which in turn affects the frequency, severity, and size of forest fires, according to Westerling.
Since the McKinney Fire began to burn, there have already been six other fires reported in the state—three of them in the same county. These fires remain small, but are at risk of growing.
Why more wildfires are likely to happen
While wildfires are a natural part of California’s ecology, the current frequency and size of the fires is a recent development, which researchers believe is due to conditions created by climate change.
Nine of the ten largest California wildfires occurred within the last five years, and research has suggested that climate change has doubled the number of large fires between 1984 and 2018 in the West. Globally, the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires occurring could increase by 30% by 2050, according to a United Nations report released this February.
Westerling, who is currently working on California’s latest State Climate Assessment, which analyzes future climate risks and identifies solutions, says the state is working on strategies to reduce the damage from wildfires in the future. These include thinning forests and prescribed burning—the practice of deliberately starting controlled fires to help reduce wood and vegetation and promote the healthy growth of forests.
But these strategies alone won’t be enough to stop uncontrolled wildfires, warns Westerling. “The more extreme climate change gets the harder it gets to adapt,” he says. “So we have to do both — adapt and mitigate future climate change.”