Northern California could face dire wildfire danger in 2022. How high is the risk?
Most of California is bone dry. Climate change is growing demonstrably more extreme by the year. And even though some significant rain fell earlier this week, it’s well short of a “March miracle.” This year figures to be a bad one – another bad one – for California wildfires.

The 2021 fire season saw more than 2.5 million acres burn, the towns of Grizzly Flats and Greenville leveled by flames and the unprecedented evacuation of South Lake Tahoe as the Caldor Fire sprinted into the Lake Tahoe Basin.

We have no way of knowing exactly what might unfold in 2022. But what is clear is conditions are again primed for another long, dangerous wildfire season.

The state is on track to enter its third year of drought. The U.S. Drought Monitor as of last week had designated just over 40% of California as being in “extreme” drought conditions, compared to about 37% at the same point in 2021.

The driest regions include parts of the North Bay area and the northern Sacramento Valley, each devastated by major fires since 2017.

Drought is one of the big concerns, but it’s not the only factor in the state’s extraordinary wildfire risk.

“The vulnerability of our forests is really catastrophic,” said Scott Stephens, a wildfire science professor and head of the Stephens Lab at UC Berkeley.
On top of that, extreme weather – severe windstorms, dry lightning and extended heat waves – is becoming more commonplace by the year.

“California continues to experience longer wildfire seasons as a direct result of climate change,” Cal Fire’s official outlook statement for the 2022 season begins.

Escalating fire risk over a longer portion of the year comes in tandem with ongoing debates about how to best mitigate, prepare for and combat the disasters.

As the dial on wildfire risk ratchets up in the weeks and months to come, how will California brace for the 2022 fire season?

How will you?

Fire danger could be extreme this year after Northern California bounced between precipitation highs and lows in recent months.

Record-breaking storms in late 2021 – a “bomb cyclone” system in October, followed by the snowiest December in history for the Central Sierra mountains – gave way to extraordinarily low rain totals since the start of this calendar year.

That’s not a good pattern, particularly for grasslands, Stephens said. They add vegetation in heavy rain; dry out in drought conditions and become wildfire fuel.

“The grassland biomass is really connected to conditions in the last two years or so,” he said. “When you get these pulses of rain followed by long dry periods … there’s no doubt that that will enhance fire spread.”

Stephens said, however, that shrubs and forestland don’t change as quickly in response to the “ping pong of weather.”

The storm earlier last week was the first real significant rain of February or March for much of Northern California, and Stephens said it would probably take two or three weeks to dry out.

But fire fuels are also drying out “more quickly, more efficiently” as average global temperatures rise, he said. Just days before the storm, several Northern California cities broke high-temperature records three days in a row.

If California is lucky enough to get a few more moderate storms from April through early May, “it’d slow the start of fire season, perhaps by a few weeks,” Stephens said.

A Newsom administration task force on Wednesday announced a strategic plan to expand the “use of beneficial fire” – prescribed burns by state and local agencies, as well as cultural burning by Native American fire practitioners – to treat forestland and prepare them for wildfire season.

“As climate change continues to exacerbate wildfire conditions, we’re bringing federal, state, tribal, and local partners together to more effectively address the scale of this crisis,” Newsom said in a prepared statement.

The plan includes a goal of “expanding beneficial fire to 400,000 acres” a year by 2025, between state, federal, local and tribal entities.

It would be a big increase compared to recent years: Cal Fire and the Forest Service conducted planned burns on about 80,000 acres a year from 2017 through 2020, according to the task force’s plan.

Efforts are ongoing by each agency to manage vegetation with prescribed burns, as well as forest-thinning efforts.

The Biden administration earlier this year unveiled a wildfire prevention plan that includes not only planned burns and thinning, but seeks to have some of the most at-risk communities build protective boundaries. It’s a vast, 10-year plan.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension whose input is included in the plan, said the acre targets in state and federal plans are “almost arbitrary.”

“The acres will come if we put all the right pieces in place,” Quinn-Davidson said in an interview.

Those pieces include workforce development, funding and creating additional partnerships fire practitioners who can offer invaluable experience, like tribal groups, Quinn-Davidson said.

Don Hankins, a Chico State geography professor who specializes in pyrogeography, said that “revitalizing” the practice of cultural burning will require an educational paradigm shift.

“Native peoples in the state used fires to steward the landscape to mitigate the impact of past climate change events and wildfires, and maintained a very rich and productive landscape,” Hankins said. “The formation of the state and policies that came about removed that for the past 200 years.

“That’s part of the reason the state is suffering right now.”

One of the most important features of the state’s plan, Quinn-Davidson said, is that California last year set aside $20 million to establish an insurance claims fund for private burners, easing liability.

Other obstacles remain.

“So many barriers are more social and administrative and legal” than practical, Quinn-Davidson said. “Perspectives of liability and insurance – those are our main barriers.”

Hankins said recent legislation and policy plans, such as California’s strategic plan and the Forest Service’s 10-year plan, are starting to remove barriers by forging more cohesive partnerships between the state, local governments, the federal government, tribes and private landowners.

But will change happen fast enough to ward off imminent wildfire threat?

“Probably not, in terms of this year,” Hankins said. “We are definitely in a very urgent situation. The more time that we spend not burning and not putting fire on the landscape, the more areas of the landscape become vulnerable to potentially disasters.

“So we do need to be acting more quickly.”

Stephens, the UC Berkeley wildfire scientist, estimated that climate change represents no more than 25% of California’s wildfire problem, with most of the remaining 75% related to forest management.

Days after the Tamarack Fire erupted near the Alpine County town of Markleeville, U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, sent an open letter to Vicki Christiansen, then chief of the Forest Service, July 19 last year.

McClintock wanted to know why Forest Service crews, after reportedly discovering the wildfire July 4, didn’t begin suppression activity on the fire until at least six days later, choosing instead to monitor the fire.

“Given the number of wildfires and their increasing size coupled with severe fire danger conditions throughout the West, I recommend that you immediately reevaluate current U.S. Forest Service direction,” McClintock wrote.

Newsom has also criticized what’s been called a “wait-and-see” approach to forest fires, including in a video call last year with President Joe Biden.

The Forest Service disputes some of the criticism.

“There is a misconception that the Forest Service has a ‘let it burn’ policy,” said Jonathan Groveman, spokesman for the Pacific Southwest Region. “We do not. Every fire receives a strategic, risk-based response considering fire conditions, weather, values at risk, and resources available.”

Groveman said the Pacific Southwest Region, which spans 20 million acres of National Forest land in California, has a “historical initial attack success rate” of about 98%.

“We will do the same in 2022, with the goal of rapid containment to minimize large fire activity.”

Some of California’s worst fires have stayed relatively calm in the early days or weeks after igniting before exploding amid gusty winds, in the worst-case scenario jumping containment lines, highways or rivers.

That happened with the West Zone of the North Complex Fire, initially known as the Bear Fire, which ignited in mid-August 2020 and was left unstaffed for a period before roaring into a deadly sprint early the following month. The blaze killed 16 Butte County residents.
By the time of McClintock’s letter last year, the Tamarack Fire had consumed more than 23,000 acres and had forced evacuations. The lightning-sparked, wind-whipped blaze burned about 69,000 acres before being fully contained.

In the weeks that followed, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, said he had spoken with new Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, and that the chief was committed to policy change.

McClintock and LaMalfa want that temporary change codified into law. The pair introduced legislation in early March that would direct the Forest Service to “use all available resources to carry out wildfire suppression with the purpose of extinguishing wildfires detected on National Forest System lands not later than 24 hours after such a wildfire is detected.”

Stephens doesn’t agree with that approach.

He said we have three main tools in the toolbox for managing forestland. One is prescribed burning; the second is forest thinning using machinery; and the third is allowing some natural fires, like those sparked by lightning, to burn in isolated areas without intervention.
After setting a prescribed burn pile on fire, firefighter Mike Wicks stands guard at Van Sickle Bi-State Park near South Lake Tahoe in February 2021. “This material was cut and piled two seasons ago and now we came – back when conditions are right to come and burn it,” said Milan Yeates, forest management coordinator at the California Tahoe Conservancy. Renée C. Byer
Regarding the third tool, Stephens cited a study authored by researchers at his lab centered on the Illilouette Creek basin at Yosemite National Park, where lightning-struck fires have been allowed to burn themselves out for the past 50 years.

“The fires actually are self-regulating there,” he explained. “Many of them are going out on their own. The size of fires, even in climate change, is not increasing. The severity of fires, in number of trees killed per area, is not increasing.”

Each of the three tools has downsides. Prescribed burns can sometimes break containment and become uncontrolled. Many environmentalists oppose forest thinning. And as last year’s fire season demonstrated, politicians on both sides of the aisle have opposed letting wildfires burn freely.

But California’s wildfire problem is vast enough, Stephens argued, that the state should use all three approaches where appropriate.

“My back of the envelope calculation is we need to do 10 times more forest restoration work than we’re doing now,” Stephens said. “And never stop.”

More than 2.5 million acres burned in California last year across 8,835 different wildfire incidents, following 4.3 million acres across 8,648 incidents in 2020, Cal Fire records show.

That volume of fire activity will stretch thin even the best-prepared fire agencies.

Last year’s Dixie and Caldor fires overlapped for close to two months, and during the most intense periods, Cal Fire had to divert resources from Dixie to battle Caldor.
The two fires were unprecedented. Thom Porter, director of Cal Fire at the time, said Dixie and Caldor were the first two blazes in the state’s recorded history to traverse the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Dixie became California’s second-largest blaze ever at more than 960,000 acres.

Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies do have some new tools at their disposal. The Caldor Fire marked the first time that night-flying helicopters were used to combat a wildfire in Northern California, Porter said at the time. They will likely be used again this year in some capacity.
Cal Fire Senior Chief of Aviation Dennis Brown opens the door to the new Firehawk helicopter at the McClellan Airport in 2020. The Firehawk, a civilian version of the U.S. Army’s Blackhawk, has two engines, can hold up to 1,000 gallons of water, and has night flying capabilities. Alie Skowronski
Cal Fire’s newly appointed chief, Joe Tyler, told Fire Aviation earlier this month that the state may have up to 10 new firefighting helicopters available this year.

The agency’s budget is $3.7 billion for the current fiscal year, with $2.1 billion of that dedicated to wildfire protection. Those are respective increases of about 45% and 62% compared to five years earlier, according to a January report from Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Among key “augmentations” this fiscal year, per the report, were $143 million to support 16 new Cal Fire hand crews and a near-quintupling of annual spending on wildfire threat assessment, from $2 million in 2020-21 to $9.5 million in 2021-22.

Newsom’s initial budget proposal for the 2022-23 fiscal year, which begins July 1, includes $1.2 billion more toward combating wildfire, which would be used to fund about 20 fire crews as well as additional equipment like helicopters, fire engines and bulldozers.

In fire-ravaged Butte County, Cal Fire crews have more than 20 vegetation management projects ongoing, Cal Fire Butte Unit spokesman Rick Carhart said Thursday.

“Even with all the major fires that we’ve had in Butte County in the past three or four years, there are still areas of concern, so a lot of work is going on,” Carhart said. “Vegetation management, that whole program, is much more of a focus of our efforts.”

Even so, there are still areas with “thick timber, as well as thick undergrowth” not far from homes, Carhart said.

Similar to Cal Fire, a serious concern for the Forest Service is staffing. According to a recently released report, suppression costs for California wildfires skyrocketed last year. The Dixie Fire cost Cal Fire and the Forest Service an estimated $637 million to combat, while the Beckwourth Fire Complex, which charred more than 100,000 acres in Plumas National Forest, cost about $543 million.

The stratospheric price tags came amid staffing shortages for the Forest Service, which had its budget for the fiscal year slashed by the Trump administration.
That meant the Forest Service had to contract other agencies for firefighting, which proved far more expensive.

The Biden administration, as the 2021 fire season entered full swing, promised “more boots on the ground” in fighting California wildfires. Federal agencies including the Forest Service control more than half of the state’s forestland.

Groveman, the Pacific Southwest Region spokesman, said the Forest Service is “aggressively working to hire and create incentives” this year.

He said the Pacific Southwest Region hosts two major hiring events each year, in fall and spring.

The region in the latest fall hiring event hired nearly 1,000 fire positions – “more than double the selections made over the past several years,” according to Groveman – and will attempt to fill 700 more positions this spring.

“We are still in the phase of reviewing applications and making offer letters.”

Quinn-Davidson, the UC fire advisor, lauded the Newsom administration and local partners for the newly announced strategic plan on prescribed burns, but called on the federal government to do more.

“We need similar commitments,” Quinn-Davidson said. “We can’t ignore our national forestlands.”

The strategic plan released Wednesday calls for the Forest Service to burn about 150,000 acres in prescribed burns annually by 2025, and for Cal Fire to handle about 50,000.

For the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Cal Fire burned about 36,000 acres, nearly three-quarters of the goal, according to the task force planning document. The Forest Service only managed about 45,000 acres, less than one-third of the target.

Cal Fire also burned several thousand acres more than the previous year, while the Forest Service burned several thousand fewer. As with fire suppression, short-staffing played a role in the federal agency falling short of its forest management goals.

Groveman wrote that the agency expects 2022 to have “a similar or slightly larger staffing level as compared to past years,” of between 5,000 to 5,500 fire personnel in the Pacific Southwest Region by the peak of wildfire season.

Some of California’s largest and deadliest wildfires in recent years have sparked as a result of faulty Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power equipment, including the deadly Camp Fire and last year’s massive Dixie Fire. The utility giant has pledged safety improvements, including the sprawling undertaking of burying 10,000 miles of power lines underground. That campaign, projected to cost $25 billion, has broken ground but will take years to complete.
The company piloted an “enhanced powerline safety settings” program last year, aiming to “quickly and automatically shut off power if a threat is detected,” such as an object falling onto a power line. The company said the program “decreased CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission)-reportable ignitions on enabled circuits in high fire-risk areas by 80%” last year compared to the preceding three years.

PG&E said its wildfire mitigation plan for this year includes expanding that safety setting program across all 25,500 miles of its distribution lines in high fire-risk areas.

Since 2020, the company has spent about $5 billion a year on wildfire safety, a figure expected to grow to nearly $6 billion this year. That includes about $1.5 billion a year just on “vegetation management,” which includes aggressive tree trimming and removal near power lines.

But last week, the state auditor blasted the Public Utilities Commission and the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety, saying it signed off on PG&E safety plans that contain serious flaws.

Among other problems, the plans failed to show that the utilities’ safety projects were “targeting the highest-risk portions of the electrical grid,” the audit said.

Power lines and equipment aren’t the only source sparking major wildfires. In August 2020, a freakishly powerful lightning storm touched off hundreds of wildfires across Northern California – including the August Complex, which grew beyond 1 million acres to become the largest wildfire incident in the state’s recorded history; the LNU Lightning Complex in the North Bay Area, which killed six people; and the North Complex.

The event was a “dry lightning” storm, meaning lightning struck with little to no accompanying precipitation. Amid heat, rain accompanying the thunderstorms evaporated before hitting the ground.

On average, experts say, those types of extreme events are becoming more frequent due to climate change. A 2014 study in the journal Science predicted that lightning strikes in the continental U.S. will increase by about 12% for every degree Celsius that the global air temperature warms.

“We are, at least, in the short term seeing these large busts of lightning-ignited fires happening at a higher frequency,” Stephens said, mentioning big dry lightning storms recorded in 1987, 2006, 2017 and 2020.

And then there are the human-caused fires, perhaps even less predictable.

Cal Fire arson investigators blamed last year’s Fawn Fire, which burned over 8,500 acres and destroyed dozens of homes in Shasta County, on a self-described “shaman” from Palo Alto who told authorities she attempted to start a fire so that she could boil bear urine for drinking.

Some of the most devastating sprints of wildfire activity in recent history haven’t come in June or July when temperatures are the highest, but instead during late summer, early fall or even December, when very gusty winds tend to develop in several parts of California.

Santa Ana winds are notorious in Southern California. The most infamous in the northern half of the state are Diablo winds – hot gusts that develop as offshore winds travel downslope from the mountains.

Those winds can flow down the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada range and coastal ranges such as the namesake Diablo Range, heating up and drying off as they do so to create serious danger for the foothills and greater Bay Area.

Diablo winds stoked the 2018 Camp Fire and the 2017 wine country fires.

Then there’s the night fire problem.

Between 2003 and 2020, fires in the U.S. West have grown 28% more intense at night, according to a recent study by climate researchers from University of Colorado, Boulder, and University of California, Merced.

John Abatzoglou, a UC Merced climatologist and one of the study’s co-authors, told The Sacramento Bee last month that his research showed that California may now be seeing about 18 more flammable nights per year than it did 40 years ago.

“Fires are sort of losing the brakes,” Abatzoglou told The Bee. “The brakes are still there, but they’re fading.”

Night-flying helicopters like the ones deployed to the Caldor Fire can help, but as of now, those operations remain fairly rare, requiring specialized training and equipment.
The Caldor Fire advances toward homes and buildings near Highway 89 in Christmas Valley in the Tahoe Basin on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Paul Kitagaki Jr.
Conditions are prime for the state to burn this year, but the risk to humans and their homes is not spread evenly.

The most dangerous places for wildfires in terms of destruction and death are known as wildland-urban interfaces: the meeting place of forestland and populous towns. Paradise, where 85 people died as the Camp Fire consumed the rural foothills town, is a tragic example.

As part of its 2019 “Destined to Burn” project, McClatchy identified more than 75 towns and cities with populations of more than 1,000 where more than 90% of residents live within what Cal Fire denoted as “very high fire hazard severity zones.”

The project identified those towns as potentially being “the next Paradise.”

Two of the listed towns were indeed largely destroyed in the past two fire seasons, both in the Sierra foothills: Berry Creek, in the 2020 North Complex, where 14 residents died; and Grizzly Flats in last year’s Caldor Fire, where two civilians suffered burn injuries.

Other notable Northern California towns and cities noted in 2019 for their significant fire danger include Nevada City, Colfax, Shingletown, Kings Beach, Arnold, Pollock Pines and South Lake Tahoe. The latter two faced mass evacuations amid the Caldor Fire but ultimately did not see destruction within their boundaries.

Fire risk is beginning to impact not just existing communities but planned ones. A judge earlier this year halted the development of a $1 billion resort and related housing project in wildfire-prone Lake County, writing that the project didn’t sufficiently account for evacuation routes.

Cal Fire and local emergency agencies have been clear on one point: All Californians should have a plan in place to be able to evacuate quickly when the next big fire comes, but especially those living in or near a wildland-urban interface.

“Now is – actually it’s way beyond the time – that you need to be working on your defensible space,” said Carhart, the Cal Fire Butte spokesman. “That’s what we want people to be doing right now, before it gets too hot.”

Evacuation preparation also includes having multiple escape routes planned out in advance.

“So many towns, so many communities have been just devastated by fire,” Stephens said. “Frankly, I think a lot of people underestimate their vulnerability in this state.”
Santa Clara County FireSafe Council