Why Is America’s Wildfire Season Getting Longer and More Unprecedented?

The San Francisco Bay Bridge is seen along Harrison Street under an orange, smoke-filled sky in San Francisco on September 9, 2020. Photo Courtesy: Brittany Hosea-Small/AFP/Getty Images

Last year in September 2020, San Francisco, California, looked like the set of Blade Runner 2049 (2017). The skies turned a dark, sunless orange as if it were dusk all day. But, for many, behind those half-hearted jokes and comparisons to dystopian films, there was a real sense of fear. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 already felt apocalyptic, but the seemingly perpetual orange sky that settled over San Francisco was an undeniable reminder of the ongoing — and worsening — climate crisis.

Americans living on the West Coast of the United States have become used to the so-called “wildfire season.” Like earthquakes, wildfires are, it seems, just part of life in the American West now. Over the past few years, however, the annual devastation has intensified. “Unlike hurricane seasons or monsoons, there is no single prescribed date for the start of the North American wildfire season,” the Center for Disaster Philanthropy points out.

While 2020 marked a record-breaking wildfire season, 2021 is poised to be even worse. Already fires have behaved in unprecedented ways. For example, the ongoing Caldor Fire, which hit the Golden State’s Lake Tahoe, and the Dixie Fire, which is burning near Chico, California, became the first wildfires to cross the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Often, firefighters can count on terrain to help them contain the burns — but the fires this season have proven otherwise.

For comparison, 4.3 million acres burned in California in 2020; this year, AccuWeather estimates 9.5 million acres across the western U.S. could burn, which is “130% of the five-year average and 140% of the 10-year average.” As of September 2021, “77 large fires and complexes have burned more than 2.9 million acres,” according to the National Interagency Fire Center. So, what exactly is contributing to these increasingly devastating wildfires and longer seasons? What’s being done to mitigate the damage and displacement? And, most importantly, how are we preparing to tackle this arm of the climate crisis?