When this year’s fire season began, California officials braced for a repeat of 2021’s devastation.
Last year, they recorded 8,835 fires that burned nearly 2.6 million acres of the Golden State. But as the 2022 season draws to a close, 6,055 blazes have blackened only 241,074 acres, according to CalFire.
A single conflagration last year — the infamous Dixie Fire — consumed 963,309 acres of wildlands and 1,329 buildings across five California counties, and it took crews 103 days to extinguish.
The biggest blaze now is the Mountain Fire southeast of Gazelle. It’s charred 11,690 acres since it started four days ago, but crews already have 20% of the fire contained.
CalFire Battalion Chief Isaac Sanchez told Coffee or Die Magazine the massive drop in this season’s damage can be tied to many factors, but a lot of the success is tied to a statewide commitment to aggressively combat and contain fires shortly after they’re spotted.
“What we’re going to see is exactly what we want: repeated, consistent success in keeping initial attack fires small and contained,” Sanchez said.
CalFire’s goal is to keep 95% of the state’s wildfires below 10 acres of burn. So far this year, firefighters continue to meet that standard.
“We have to ensure that we’re aggressively attacking every single fire that starts, and we’re doing what we can to continue to protect the people and properties in California,” Sanchez said.
Officials point to blazes like the Walker Fire, which had destroyed 20 acres of Mendocino County by about 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 1. An hour later, however, 176 firefighters linked to 14 engines, three bulldozers, two helicopters, four water tenders, and 68 hand crews were corralling the flames.
It’s 85% contained now, and only 109 acres have been lost, with two firefighters hurt. CalFire spokesperson Jonathan Pierce described the injuries as “relatively minor” ankle mishaps.
After spending more than two decades waging war on wildfires, Sanchez cautions that despite CalFire’s commitment to speedy containment, every blaze is different. It all comes down to what’s fueling the fire, the weather, and topography.
And while containment is a good yardstick for measuring progress against a blaze, what really matters is controlling the fire, he added. To Sanchez, the best way to control a fire is to make sure it never starts.
According to the National Park Service, nearly 85% of wildfires can be traced back to people, who intentionally or accidentally spark the blazes.
This year’s season is on pace to end with hundreds, maybe thousands, fewer fires than in 2021. And Sanchez thinks that’s because of an ongoing effort by the state and local fire departments to educate the public on how easily a forest can be ignited.
“The more that that recognition sinks in, I think we’ll continue to see a drop in fires,” Sanchez said. “There will always be accidents, electrical malfunctions, and there’ll always be lightning. But outside of that, our direct actions have an impact, and I think that that message has been recognized and accepted by the public.”