The wildfires raging throughout Southern California are now so fierce and widespread they cover a land area larger than Boston and New York City combined. The Thomas Fire, the largest of the six blazes, covers 230,000 acres, making it the fifth largest wildfire in modern Californian history. Firefighters are struggling to make progress against the inferno, with containment of the Thomas Fire shrinking from 15 percent to 10 percent on Sunday.
The fire’s spread has been aided by powerful, dry Santa Ana winds and a lack of rainfall, which are fairly typical of the Southern California coastal region. “Every single year, we have ideal conditions for the types of wildfires we’re experiencing,” ecologist Alexandra Syphard at the Conservation Biology Institute told Wired. “What we don’t have every single year is an ignition during a wind event. And we’ve had several.”
“The problem is not fire,” Syphard added. “The problem is people in the wrong places.” While wildfires were a normal occurrence before the development of Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California, they would typically only occur once or twice a year. Human activity in one of the most populous regions in the United States has increased the rate of wildfires, which has damaged the local ecology. “We’ve lost a lot of our natural heritage [to wildfires],” US Geological Survey research ecologist Jon Keeley told Wired.
As the effects of climate change continue to become more pronounced and powerful, these ferocious wildfires may become ordinary occurrences. “With climate change, some scientists are saying that Southern California is literally burning up,” said California Governor Jerry Brown, “so we have to have the resources to combat the fires and we also have to invest in managing the vegetation and forests … in a place that’s getting hotter.”