California now has a ‘gigafire’ after blaze surpasses 1 million acres

The August Complex fire, between San Francisco and the Oregon border, has now  burned more acreage than all California fires from 1932 to 1999

Louise Boyle
New York
Tuesday 06 October 2020 16:36 BST
US wildfire size triples

California has set a grim record with news on Monday that the August Complex fire is large enough to be classified as a ‘gigafire’ after burning through more than a million acres. 

The August Complex, between San Francisco and the Oregon border, has destroyed more acreage than all California fires from 1932 to 1999. It was already the largest blaze in state history before it claimed the title.

The 2020 wildfire season has shattered records and been driven by the climate crisis, as state officials have repeatedly pointed out. 

"If that’s not proof-point testament to climate change, I don’t know what is,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said on Monday.

The “gigafire” milestone comes as wildfires across California have burned a combined 4 million acres, or 6,250 square miles, since the beginning of the year. 

It is more than twice the area that burned in California’s previous historic fires in 2018, and amounts to almost the land mass of Connecticut and Delware combined.

The bulk of that acreage was incinerated amid an unprecedented outbreak of wildfires across the entire Western United States this summer, stoked by frequent, prolonged bouts of extreme heat, high winds and dry lightning storms.
Scientists have pointed to the region’s incendiary weather, along with supercharged fuel beds overgrown with tinder dry grass and scrub, as consequences of climate change.California wildfires since January have claimed 31 lives and destroyed nearly 8,700 structures.The August Complex, sparked by lightning on 17 August and now 54 per cent contained, has killed one person and burned two times as much landscape as the next largest California wildfire on record - the 460,000-acre Mendocino Complex of July 2018.
Five of California’s 20 largest wildfires on record have occurred in 2020, according to Cal Fire.

The August complex is the first gigafire in modern history in the state. In 2004, the Taylor Complex in Alaska burned more than 1.3 million acres. The term "gigafire,” was coined by academics to describe the growing presence and scope of massive wildfires.

According to Climate Central, US Forest Service records from the past half-century reveal that the number of large blazes has significantly increased in western states. 

The average number of large fires each year - those greater than 1,000 acres - has more than tripled between the 1970s and the 2010s. The area destroyed is on average six times greater in the 2010s than in the 1970s.

“The fire season is 105 days longer than it was in the 1970, and is approaching the point where the notion of a fire season will be made obsolete by the reality of year-round wildfires across the West,” Climate Central stated.

On Monday, fire crews had some luck in battling the Glass Fire in California wine country after the winds calmed.

It helped fire fighters gain some ground over the blaze in Napa Valley’s wine-growing region after an onslaught of heavy gusts and scorching weather kept firefighters on the defensive over the weekend.

No serious injuries have been reported in the eight-day-old Glass Fire, but nearly 1,500 homes and other structures have been lost in Napa and neighboring Sonoma County, including at least two wineries.

The fire erupted on 27 September near the Napa resort town of Calistoga putting some of the region’s 2020 vintage into question.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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