Environment & Science

California has had a monster wildfire every year for the past 6 years

A motorists on Highway 101 watches flames from the Thomas fire leap above the roadway north of Ventura, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017.
A motorists on Highway 101 watches flames from the Thomas fire leap above the roadway north of Ventura, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017.
Noah Berger/AP

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If you feel like California's wildfires have been getting bigger and more frequent, you're not crazy. Two-thirds of the state's largest fires on record have occurred in the last 20 years.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, keeps a running list of the top 20 fires on record based on acres burned.

Of the 20 fires on the list, 14 of the biggest wildfires have occurred since 2002. Six of those have been in the past six years alone.

The Thomas Fire, which has torn across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, leaving in its wake at least one dead and 932 structures destroyed, has raced up the list to No. 4 (so far). The Thomas Fire was also noticeably the only monster fire on California's top 20 list to occur in December. All others happened from July to October.

To understand the scale of these monster fires, consider that the smallest among them, 1990's Campbell Complex Fire, burned 125,892 acres, or nearly 200 square miles. That's larger than the city of San Jose.

The largest on the list was San Diego County's 2003 Cedar Fire, which scorched 273,246 acres. Lassen County's 2012 Rush Fire was technically larger, but burned into Nevada (so the state put it at No. 2 on its list) considering only the California acreage burned. All told, the Rush Fire was larger than the city of Los Angeles.

Before 2000, such monstrously large fires occurred far less frequently according to state records. 

California has experienced historically massive wildfires with increasing frequency since 2002.
California has experienced historically massive wildfires with increasing frequency since 2002.
KPCC/Google Charts

Ask experts why these fires have become more common and you'll get a range of answers. That we have misguided forest management techniques, or that we're building too far into the wilderness. Most commonly you'll hear that climate change is to blame. That's what Cal Fire Captain Jordan Motta attributed the increase to. He said increased temperatures and erratic precipitation patterns (long periods of dry punctuated by short bursts of wet) have led to conditions more conducive to fires. 

There is one caveat when looking at the agencies fire rankings: their list only dates back to 1932. Prior to that, the agency said, the records were less reliable. So, California could have had similar wildfire streaks before.