2020 Western United States wildfires

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2020 Western United States wildfires
GOES17 geocolor Western US 2020-09-09 1100AM.jpg
September 9 satellite image of the wildfires burning in California and Oregon
LocationWestern United States
Statistics
Total fires100+
Total areaOver 4,600,000 acres (1,900,000 ha)
Cost>$1.7 billion (2020 USD)
Date(s)July 24, 2020 (2020-07-24) – ongoing (ongoing)
Buildings destroyed7,500+
Deaths37
Non-fatal injuriesunknown

In 2020, the Western United States experienced a series of major wildfires. Severe August thunderstorms lit numerous wildfires across California, Oregon, and Washington, followed in early September by additional ignitions across the West Coast. Fanned by strong, gusty winds and fueled by hot, dry terrains, many of the fires exploded and coalesced into record-breaking, fire-cloud-forming megafires, burning more than 4.6 million acres (1.9 million hectares) of land, mobilizing tens of thousands of firefighters, razing thousands of buildings, and killing at least 37 people, with scores more still missing. Climate change and poor forest management practices contributed to the severity of the wildfires.

Background[]

Fire, environment, and cultural shift[]

Combustion is an elemental shaping force on Earth. Since time immemorial, fires have forged the natural environment of our planet. Hominids have set fire to the landscape for at least a million years. Native peoples across the Americas have performed controlled burns for millenia, significantly altering the environment. Save for areas along the northern and southern extents of the Pacific coast, North America tends to be wetter in the east and drier in the west. In the northwest, the Karuk people periodically set prescribed fires to clear forest undergrowth, increasing forest fire-resistance and biodiversity. These practices of stewardship have been curtailed and outlawed due to societal racism at the root of European colonization, which instituted paradigmatic changes in ecosystem prioroties and management. Since then, with the advent of the industrial-scale burning of fossil fuels, the climate has changed, and the globe has markedly heated.

Record Hemispheric Heat[]

The Northern Hemisphere January-August land and ocean surface temperature tied with 2016 as the warmest such period since global records began in 1880. The Southern Hemisphere had its third-warmest such period (tied with 2017) on record, behind 2016 and 2019.

— United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, September 14, 2020
Year-to-date (through September 8, 2020) animation of extent and intensity of drought in the United States maintained by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln National Drought Mitigation Center

Record dry weather struck the Western United States in late 2019, extending to January and February 2020, prompting initial concerns from state governments and the press.

California was the first to call out a warning. On March 22, a state of emergency was declared by California Governor Gavin Newsom due to a mass die-off of trees throughout the state, potentially increasing the risk of wildfire. Oregon officially declared the start of their wildfire season that same month. Despite light rain in late March and April, severe drought conditions persisted, and were predicted to last late into the year, due to a delayed wet season. After fires began in Washington in April, several more fires occurred throughout the West Coast, prompting burn ban restrictions in the Washington and Oregon, come July.

Year-to-date wildfire figures[]

United States agencies stationed at the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho maintain a "National Large Incident Year-to-Date Report" on wildfires, delineating 10 sub-national areas, aggregating the regional and national totals of burn size, fire suppression cost, and razed structure count, among other data. As of September 14, "Coordination Centers" of each geography report the following:

National Interagency Fire Center Geographic Area Coordination Centers
National Interagency Fire Center Geographic Area Coordination Centers

Note: Check primary sources for up-to-date statistics.

Coordination Center Acres Hectares Suppression Costs Structures Destroyed
Alaska Interagency 171,045.7 69,219.7 $14,837,241.00 8
Northwest Area 1,797,218.1 727,308.4 $209,679,651.99 2,198
Northern California Area 3,209,117.6 1,298,683.8 $735,907,552.25 3,640
Southern California Area 778,021.5 314,854.1 $375,449,980.00 719
Northern Rockies 312,492.8 126,461.3 $58,470,145.00 227
Great Basin 654,477.2 264,857.5 $168,420,302.00 169
Southwest Area 951,109.6 384,900.4 $178,753,964.96 48
Rocky Mountain Area 477,346.8 193,175.4 $146,741,421.34 73
Eastern Area 10,071.8 4,075.9 $491,898.58 18
Southern Area 986,994.3 399,422.4 $14,542,789.11 309
Totals 9,347,895.2 3,782,959.0 $1,903,294,946.23 7,409

Timeline of events[]

Initial ignitions and weather conditions[]

The CZU Lightning Complex fires were sparked by lightning in mid-August

April saw the beginning of wildfires in the west coast, as Washington experienced two fires: the Stanwood Bryant Fire in Snohomish County (70 acres (28 ha)) and the Porter Creek Fire in Whatcom County (80 acres (32 ha)). The Oregon Department of Forestry declared fire season beginning July 5, 2020, signaling the end of unregulated debris burning outdoors, a major cause of wildfires.

Between July 16 and 30, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and many county governments – including Mason, Thurston, King, Pierce and Whatcom Counties – issued fire safety burn bans due to elevated risk of uncontrolled fires. In late July, a brush fire in Chelan County, the Colockum Fire, burned at least 3,337 acres (1,350 ha) and caused homes to be evacuated. A fire on the Colville Reservation near Nespelem called the Greenhouse Fire burned at least 5,146 acres (2,083 ha) and caused the evacuation of the Colville Tribal Corrections Facility and other structures.

Between August 14 and 16, Northern California was subjected to record-breaking warm temperatures, due to anomalously strong high pressure over the region. Early on August 15, the National Weather Service for San Francisco issued a Fire Weather Watch highlighting the risk of wildfire starts due to the combination of lightning risk due to moist, unstable air aloft, dry fuels, and hot temperatures near the surface. Later that day, the Fire Weather Watch was upgraded to a Red Flag Warning, noting the risk of abundant lightning already apparent as the storms moved toward the region from the south.

In mid-August, the remnants of Tropical Storm Fausto interacted with the jet stream, resulting in a large plume of moisture moving northward towards the West Coast of the U.S., triggering a massive siege of lightning storms in Northern California, and setting the conditions for wildfires elsewhere. Due to abnormal wind patterns, this plume streamed from up to 1,000 miles (1,600 km) off the coast of the Baja Peninsula into Northern California. This moisture then interacted with a high-pressure ridge situated over Nevada that was bringing a long-track heat wave to much of California and the West. These colliding weather systems then created excessive atmospheric instability that generated massive thunderstorms throughout much of Northern and Central California. Such thunderstorms are rare for California, but were more typical of Midwest garden-variety storms, with one location near Travis Air Force Base going from around 80 °F (27 °C) to 100 °F (38 °C) in nearly 1–2 hours. Additionally, much of these storms were only accompanied with dry lightning and produced little to no rain, making conditions very favorable for wildfires to spark and spread rapidly.

As a result of the fires, on August 19, Governors Kate Brown and Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency for Oregon and Washington respectively.

Growth[]

Six of the twenty largest wildfires in California history were part of the 2020 wildfire season. Five of the new wildfires ranking in the top 10 were all a part of the August 2020 lightning fires.

By August 20, the Palmer Fire near Oroville, Washington – which started August 18 – had reached 13,000 acres (5,300 ha) and forced evacuation of up to 85 homes. The largest of the fires in the Olympics reached 2.4 acres (0.97 ha) by August 20.

View of the Bobcat Fire from a kitchen window in Monrovia, California

The Evans Canyon Fire, a few miles north of Naches, began around August 31 and expanded to tens of thousands of acres, shut down Washington State Route 821 in the Yakima River Canyon, burned several homes and caused hundreds of families to evacuate, and caused unhealthy air quality in Yakima County. By September 6, it had burned almost 76,000 acres (31,000 ha).

The August 2020 lightning fires include three of the largest wildfires in the recorded history of California: the SCU Lightning Complex, the August Complex, and the LNU Lightning Complex. On September 10, 2020, the August Complex became the single-largest wildfire in the recorded history of California, reaching a total area burned of 471,185 acres (1,907 km2). Then, on September 11, it merged with the Elkhorn Fire, another massive wildfire of 255,039 acres (1,032 km2), turning the August Complex into a monster wildfire of 746,607 acres (3,021 km2).

In early September 2020, a combination of a record-breaking heat wave, and Diablo and Santa Ana winds sparked more fires and explosively grew active fires, with the August Complex surpassing the 2018 Mendocino Complex to become California's largest recorded wildfire. The North Complex increased in size as the winds fanned it westward, threatening the city of Oroville, and triggering mass evacuations. During the first week in September, the 2020 fire season set a new California record for the most area burned in a year at 2,000,000 acres (810,000 ha). As of September 13, 3,200,000 acres (1,300,000 ha) had burned in the state.

On September 7, a "historic fire event" with high winds resulted in 80 fires and nearly 300,000 acres (120,000 ha) burned in a day. Malden, in the Palouse Country of Eastern Washington, was mostly destroyed by one of the fires. By the evening of September 8, the Cold Springs Canyon and adjacent Pearl Hill Fires had burned over 337,000 acres (136,000 ha) and neither was more than 10% contained. Smoke blanketed the Seattle area on September 8 and caused unhealthy air conditions throughout the Puget Sound region, and affected Southwest British Columbia.

The cities of Phoenix and Talent in Oregon were substantially destroyed by the Almeda Drive Fire. State-wide, at least 23 people have been killed. On September 11, authorities said they were preparing for a mass fatality incident. As of September 11, 600 homes and 100 commercial buildings have been destroyed by the Almeda Drive Fire. Officials stated that the Almeda Drive Fire was human-caused. On September 11, a man was arrested for arson, for allegedly starting a fire that destroyed multiple homes in Phoenix and merged with the Almeda Drive Fire. A separate criminal investigation into the origin point of the Almeda Drive Fire in Ashland is ongoing.

Around September 11–12, wildfires were starting to encroach upon the Clackamas County suburbs of Portland, Oregon, especially the fast-moving Riverside Fire which had already jumped the nearby community of Estacada, but shifting wind directions kept the fire away from the main Portland area.

Evacuations[]

The Government of California's video about COVID-19 protocols in place at wildfire evacuation centers.

The first evacuations began on September 4, when almost 200 people were airlifted out of the Sierra National Forest due to the rapidly exploding Creek Fire. Then on September 9, most of the southern area of the city of Medford, Oregon was forced to evacuate and almost all of the 80,000 residents living in the city were told to be ready if necessary because of the uncontained Almeda Drive Fire, which was fast encroaching on their city. As of September 11, about 40,000 people in Oregon had been instructed to evacuate, and 500,000, accounting for about 10% of the state's population, had received instructions to prepare for evacuation, being under a Level 1, 2, or 3 fire evacuation alert.

List[]

The following is a list of fires that burned more than 1,000 acres (400 ha), or produced significant structural damage or casualties.

Name County Acres Start date Containment date Notes Ref
Blue Jay Mariposa County, California, Tuolumne County, California 4,427 July 24 40% contained as of September 17 Lightning-sparked
Red Salmon Complex Humboldt County, California, Siskiyou County, California, Trinity County, California 101,587 July 26 17% contained as of September 17 Originally started as both the Red and Salmon fire (both started by lightning strikes), but have since merged into one fire
Chikamin Chelan County, Washington 1,685 July 31 97% contained, as of September 19
Wolf Mariposa County, California, Tuolumne County, California 4,427 August 11 25% contained as of September 19 Lightning-sparked
August Complex (South Zone) Glenn County, California, Mendocino County, California, Lake County, California, Tehama County, California, Trinity County, California 593,893 August 16 30% contained, as of September 15 Lightning strikes started 37 fires, several of which grew to large sizes, especially the Doe Fire; 1 firefighter injury; 1 firefighter fatality. It became the largest fire complex in California history and combined with the Elkhorn Fire on September 10.
Rattlesnake Tulare County, California 2,078 August 16 0% contained, as of September 10 Lightning sparked a slow-growing fire in inaccessible terrain.
Lionshead Jefferson County, Oregon 198,231 August 16 10% contained, as of September 12. Merged into the Beachie Creek Fire and became the Santiam Fire on September 8.
Beachie Creek Linn County, Oregon 192,531 August 16 20% contained, as of September 15. Merged with the Lionshead Fire and became the Santiam Fire on September 8.
Santiam Clackamas County, Oregon, Jefferson County, Oregon, Linn County, Oregon, Marion County, Oregon, Wasco County, Oregon 395,371 August 16 2% contained, as of September 12 Includes the Lionshead, Beachie Creek, and P-515 Fires, which merged
Downey Creek Douglas County, Oregon 2,570 August 16 0% contained, as of September 13
White River Wasco County, Oregon 17,383 August 17 80% contained, as of September 15
Sheep Plumas, Lassen 29,570 August 17 September 9 Lightning-sparked, 26 structures destroyed, 1 injury
P-515 Jefferson County, Oregon 4,609 September 7 95% contained, as of September 11. Merged into the Lionshead Fire on September 8.
August Complex (North & West Zones/Elkhorn Fire) Tehama County, California, Trinity County, California 255,309 August 17 29% contained as of September 13 Lightning strikes, 14 structures destroyed;1 structure damaged; 1 injury. Southern segment of the fire perimeter eventually merged into the August Complex, while the western front of the fire absorbed the Hopkins, Vinegar Peak and Willow Basin Fires, all of which are now managed under the Elkhorn Complex. It is the ninth largest fire in California history.
North Complex Plumas County, California, Butte County, California, Yuba County, California 289,951 August 17 36% contained, as of September 17 Lightning strikes, includes the Claremont Fire and the Bear Fire; 2,000 structures destroyed; 10 fatalities; 13 injuries; It is the tenth-largest fire complex in California history.
Dolan Monterey County, California 128,050 August 18 46% contained, as of September 19 Cause not officially determined; however, a suspect was charged with arson in connection to the fire
SQF Complex Tulare County, California 133,488 August 19 12% contained, as of September 13 Lightning-sparked, contains the Castle Fire and the Shotgun Fire
Slink Mono County, California 26,752 August 29 71% contained, as of September 16 Lightning-sparked
Evans Canyon Kittitas County, Washington 75,817 August 31 90% contained, as of September 12
Creek Fresno County, California, Madera County, California 248,256 September 4 20% contained, as of September 17 783 structures destroyed, 67 structures damaged; 12 injuries; 1 fatality
El Dorado Riverside County, California, San Bernardino County, California 22,071 September 5 63% contained, as of September 17 Sparked by a pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party. 10 structures destroyed, 6 structures damaged
Valley San Diego County, California 17,093 September 5 91% contained, as of September 19 51 structures destroyed, 11 structures damaged, 2 injuries
Bobcat Los Angeles County, California 91,071 September 6 15% contained, as of September 19 Unknown cause
Cold Springs Okanogan County, Washington 189,923 September 6 80% contained, as of September 17 1 fatality
Oak Mendocino County, California 1,100 September 7 September 14 Unknown cause, 25 structures destroyed, 20 structures damaged
Slater/Devil Siskiyou County, California, Del Norte County, California, Josephine County, Oregon 153,842 September 7 25% contained, as of September 19 2 fatalities, 1 structure destroyed
Two Four Two Klamath County, Oregon 14,473 September 7 49% contained, as of September 19
Brattain Lake County, Oregon 47,243 September 7 20% contained, as of September 17
Holiday Farm Lane County, Oregon 173,025 September 7 12% contained, as of September 19 1 fatality
Echo Mountain Complex Lake County, Oregon 2,552 September 7 65% contained, as of September 19
Babb-Maiden/Manning Spokane County, Washington 18,254 September 7 0% contained, as of September 12
Whitney Lincoln County, Washington 127,430 September 7 95% contained, as of September 16
Inchelium Complex Ferry County, Washington 19,399 September 7 62% contained, as of September 17
Pearl Hill Douglas County, Washington 223,730 September 7 94% contained, as of September 16
Apple Acres Chelan County, Washington 5,500 September 7 99% contained, as of September 16
Fork El Dorado County, California 1,752 September 8 53% contained, as of September 19
South Obenchain Jackson County, Oregon 32,833 September 8 45% contained, as of September 19
Riverside Clackamas County, Oregon 137,865 September 8 11% contained, as of September 19
Big Hollow Skamania County, Washington 24,788 September 8 15% contained, as of September 16
Almeda Drive Jackson County, Oregon 3,000 September 8 100% contained, as of September 15 2457 Structures destroyed, 4 fatalities
Thielsen Douglas County, Oregon 9,536 September 9 18% contained, as of September 19
Willow Yuba County, California 1,311 September 9 September 14 41 structures destroyed
Archie Creek Douglas County, Oregon 130,429 September 9 32% contained, as of September 17
Fox Trinity County, California 1,850 September 14 17% contained as of September 19
Snow Riverside County, California 4,200 September 17 5% contained as of September 19

Causes[]

Fire policy[]

Prior to development, California fires regularly burned significantly more acreage than has been seen in recent history. Wildfires have been aggressively suppressed in recent years, resulting in a buildup of fuel, increasing the risk of large uncontrollable fires. There is broad scientific consensus that there should be more controlled burning of forest in California in order to reduce fire risk. Controlled burning is hampered by wildfire litigation models that present wildfires in court cases as the result of careless ignition events while discounting underlying forest conditions. A 2020 ProPublica investigation blames the culture of Cal Fire, greed on the part of fire suppression contractors, and risk aversion on the part of the U.S. Forest Service from preventing appropriate controlled burns from taking place.

Climate change[]

The Los Angeles Times on 13 September described the fire as a climate apocalypse.

Climate change has led to increased heat waves and the risk of drought in California, creating the conditions for more frequent and severe wildfires. It has been observed that since the early 1970s, warm‐season days in California warmed by ca. 1.4 °C. This significantly increases the atmospheric vapor pressure deficit, the difference between the actual and a maximum moisture content for a certain temperature. These trends are consistent with human-induced trends that were simulated by climate models. Summer forest‐fire area reacts to the vapor pressure deficit exponentially, i.e., warming has grown increasingly impactful.

David Romps, director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center summarizes the situation as follows: "To cut to the chase: Were the heat wave and the lightning strikes and the dryness of the vegetation affected by global warming? Absolutely yes. Were they made significantly hotter, more numerous, and drier because of global warming? Yes, likely yes, and yes." Similarly, Friederike Otto, acting director of the University of Oxford Environmental Change Institute states, "There is absolutely no doubt that the extremely high temperatures are higher than they would have been without human-induced climate change. A huge body of attribution literature demonstrates now that climate change is an absolute game-changer when it comes to heat waves, and California won't be the exception." Susan Clark, director of the Sustainability Initiative at the University at Buffalo, states, "This is climate change. This increased intensity and frequency of temperatures and heat waves are part of the projections for the future. [...] There is going to be more morbidity and mortality [from heat.] There are going to be more extremes."

Obstacles to fire control[]

Secretary of California's Natural Resources Agency Wade Crowfoot urges President Trump to not ignore the science on climate change to which Trump responds "I don't think science knows, actually" and "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch."

Rumors about political extremist involvement[]

Rumors were spread on social media that antifa activists involved in arson and rioting accompanying the nearby George Floyd protests in Portland, Oregon, were deliberately setting fires, and were preparing to loot property that was being evacuated. Some residents refused to evacuate based on the rumors, choosing to defend their homes from the looting. Authorities told residents to ignore the rumors. QAnon followers participated in these claims, with one claim that six Antifa activists had been arrested for setting fires specifically amplified by "Q", i.e. "the anonymous person or people behind QAnon". Days earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr had amplified social media rumors of preceding months that planes and buses full of Antifa activists were preparing to invade communities, allegedly funded by George Soros.

Rumors also circulated that members of far-right groups such as the Proud Boys had started some of the fires. However, authorities labelled the claims as false, saying that people needed to question claims they found on social media.

There have been multiple arrests for arson surrounding the wildfires in multiple states, but there is no indication that the incidents were connected to a mass arson campaign, according to multiple law enforcement officers.

COVID-19 pandemic[]

The COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges for firefighters fighting wildfires due to measures intended to reduce the transmission of the disease. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire) implemented new protocols such as wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing while resting, and reducing the number of occupants in the pickup trucks used to transport firefighters.

California relies heavily on inmate firefighters, with incarcerated people making up nearly a quarter of CAL FIRE's total workforce in 2018–2019. Coronavirus measures within the prison system, such as early release and quarantine policies, have reduced the number of inmate firefighters available, necessitating the hiring of additional seasonal firefighters.

Impacts[]

Burning[]

In Oregon, wildfires throughout the whole year, with most occurring in September, charred a record of 1,000,000 acres (4,000 km2), destroying 1,145 homes and 579 other structures and killing 8 people. In Washington, 2020 wildfires burned 800,000 acres (3,200 km2), with 418 structures, including 195 homes, burned. In California, about 3,300,000 acres (13,000 km2) burned from wildfires in 2020, the highest burned acreage ever recorded in a fire season. About 2,100,000 acres (8,500 km2) burned in the August lighting wildfires and 1,000,000 acres (4,000 km2) more in September. 4,200 structures were destroyed the whole year in California, and 25 people were killed.

Smoke and air pollution[]

The fires resulted in worsened air pollution across much of the western U.S. and Canada, from Los Angeles to British Columbia. Alaska Airlines suspended its flights from Portland, Oregon, and Spokane, Washington, due to poor air quality. Some cities in Oregon recorded air quality readings of over 500 on the AQI scale, while readings of over 200 were recorded in major cities. Smoke from the fires were carried to the East Coast, causing yellowed skies but having little impact on air quality.

The heavy smoke had resulted in several smoke-related incidents. In California, for example, a San Francisco resident was hiking through Yosemite National Park on September 5 when suddenly the sky turned a dark, ugly color and the temperature dropped greatly, reminiscent of a thunderstorm. Ash and smoke started falling, and this erratic weather was caused by the nearby Creek Fire. In another incident, an Oakland A's player was at a game at the Seattle Mariners' stadium, when suddenly in the middle of the game he started gasping for air.

Red skies have appeared over many cities over the West Coast, due to smoke from the wildfires blocking lighter colors, created from light infraction.

Ecological effects[]

Habitat destruction[]

The unique sagebrush scrub habitat of the Columbia Basin in Washington was heavily affected by the fires, devastating populations of the endemic Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit and endangered, isolated populations of greater sage-grouse and Columbian sharp-tailed grouse. About half of the pygmy rabbit population and over 30-70% of the grouse population may have been lost to the fires, reversing decades of conservation work. Aside from climate change, the spread of the fires may have been assisted by the intrusion of invasive cheatgrass into the habitats. Fires in old-growth forests of Oregon may negatively affect the populations of the endangered northern spotted owl and pine marten, and the resulting ash from the fires may be washed into streams and threaten endangered salmon. Climate change also reduces the likelihood of forests re-establishing themselves after a fire.

Possible bird mortality[]

Since August 20, a mass mortality event of migratory birds has been reported in the Southwestern United States, especially New Mexico, with hundreds of thousands to potentially millions of birds being affected. The majority of deceased birds are insectivorous ones including warblers, tyrant-flycatchers, and swallows, and are likely migrants from outside the region, as resident birds have not been affected. Although the exact causes are as of yet unknown and under review, it has been theorized that the birds originated from areas affected by the fires and had their migration patterns altered by both the fires and a major cold front, forcing them into drought-stricken desert areas where they were unable to find food and eventually died from exhaustion. Smoke inhalation from the fires may have also played a part. However, an analysis later in the month by the American Birding Association found the cold front to be the most likely cause of the deaths, with the fires playing a minimal impact, if any.

See also[]

By state
Other wildfires
General

Notes[]

  1. Year-to-date totals as of September 14, 2020

References[]

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