Every year, wildfires burn vast areas of California, destroying ecosystems and displacing local residents. However, there are months when the risk of wildfires is significantly higher. This period is known as fire season. In this article, we’ll talk a bit more about California’s fire season and the typical conditions associated with it that lead to increased wildfire activity.
When Is Fire Season in California?
While most people intuitively assume that peak fire season falls during the hot summer months, it comes as a surprise to many that wildfires are quite common in September, October, and increasingly even November as well. The typical California fire season lasts from late spring to late fall, with some regional differences resulting from local weather patterns in Southern California and Northern California.
What’s more, autumn fires can end up being even more devastating than summer ones due to the combination of dry vegetation and dry winds that commonly occur in California at this time of year.
Fire Season in Northern and Southern California
In Southern California, fire season starts earlier than in Northern California. It usually takes place between late spring and fall. The risk of fire is heightened in the fall due to dry vegetation and wind events such as the Santa Ana winds, which are linked to some of the largest California wildfires. Although dry winds can occur throughout the year in this part of the state, humid maritime air makes wildfire outbreaks less likely between winter and early spring.
In Northern California, on the other hand, peak fire season tends to start with rising temperatures in the summer (June or July) and can last until late fall when maritime air from the Pacific increases air humidity. In Northern California, wildfire seasons can also be affected by hot northeast wind events. These can be especially dangerous in September and October when vegetation is still dry. Fire activity decreases in late fall and continues to be low through winter and spring.
What to Expect From Wildfire Season in California
Forest fires can be caused either by human activity or natural phenomena, but in both cases, the speed of their growth is heavily influenced by the weather. That’s why, while wildfires can occur year-round in California, even in winter, they are more common during the hot and dry summer and fall months (July-October).
During California’s fire season, typical conditions include rising temperatures, decreased rainfall, high winds (sometimes reaching hurricane strength), low humidity, and other risk factors that can make it easier for fires to spread, become more intense, and more challenging to contain.
Fire Season in California: Wildfire Risk Factors
- High temperatures and decreased rainfall: California’s climate is well-known for its warm and dry summers. Unfortunately, prolonged periods of high temperatures and recurring heatwaves result in droughts. Without significant rainfall, vegetation dries out and turns into easily available fuel for wildfires.
- Strong winds: These can quickly turn relatively small fire outbreaks into destructive fires by helping the flames spread or even carrying burning embers over long distances and causing further fires in different locations. The wind events that pose the biggest threat during California’s fire season are the Santa Ana winds in Southern California and the Diablo winds in Northern California.
- Human activity: From overheating or faulty equipment to unattended campfires, a significant percentage of wildland fires in the US are caused by humans each year. The risks associated with human activity increase in July and August with more campers and hikers visiting forests and national parks. It’s always important to be mindful of wildfire risks when camping, especially during fire season.
How Is Climate Change Affecting California’s Wildfire Season?
Climate change is affecting global weather patterns, resulting in higher-than-usual temperatures and extreme events such as heatwaves and droughts, which, in turn, can exacerbate wildfires by creating drier conditions. These changes increase the potential for wildland and forest fire outbreaks even outside of the fire season in California and globally. With destructive wildfires occurring throughout the year, many experts and scientists nowadays say that the California wildfire season is not only getting longer but is now year-round.
What Were the Largest California Wildfires?
According to data provided by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the largest wildland and forest fires in California were:
- August Complex (date: August 2020, acres burned: 1,032,648)
- Dixie Fire (date: July 2021, acres burned: 963,309)
- Mendocino Complex (date: July 2018, acres burned: 459,123)
- SCU Lightning Complex (date: August 2020, acres burned: 396,625)
- Creek Fire (date: September 2020, acres burned: 379,895)
- LNU Lightning Complex (date: August 2020, acres burned: 363,220)
- North Complex Fire (date: August 2020, acres burned: 318,935)
How Can You Prepare for a Wildfire?
There are many precautions you can take to prepare yourself, your family, and your property for fire season. It’s especially important if you live in an area where the risk of fires is high. For new buildings in wildfire-prone locations, using fire-resistant materials is recommended, but you can protect older properties as well, e.g., by creating a plant-free zone around your home to reduce potential fire fuel.
Can Wildfires Be Prevented?
Wildfire prevention methods can significantly reduce fire hazards, but they can’t eliminate them completely. That’s why effective fire detection is crucial. Automatic fire detection systems can monitor the landscape 24/7 to detect early signs of fires or smoke and send instant alerts about potential fires and their exact location. This can give firefighters enough time to contain the threat before it turns into a wildfire.