McKinney Fire Is California’s Biggest of 2022: What to Know

The McKinney Fire in far northern California has so far burned more than 55,000 acres—an area more than one and a half times the size of San Francisco—making it the largest wildfire in the state so far this year. It is believed that the McKinney Fire was responsible for two deaths. They were discovered Sunday inside a burnt-out vehicle.

California’s wildfire season has been ramping up again, as evidenced by the McKinney Fire and the Oak Fire on Yosemite National Park (19,000 acres). A heat wave across the Pacific Northwest and years of drought that have resulted in very dry fuel in forests—both of which experts say are made worse by climate change—are creating conditions for bigger, more frequent, and more unpredictable fires across California this year.

There are currently 60 active large wildfires burning across 14 states nationwide—engulfing about 1.6 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). More than 5.7 million acres have been burned so far this year—more than 85% higher than at this point last year, and more than at this point in any year since 2015.

Here’s what you need to know about California’s wildfires so far this year.

So far, what we know about McKinney’s fire

California Highway 96 is occupied by the McKinney fire, which erupted in Klamath National Forest (Calif.) Saturday, July 30, 2022. A firetruck was seen driving along California Highway 96.

Noah Berger—AP

On July 29, the McKinney fire began to burn at Siskiyou County’s Klamath National Forest. Fire officials say that there are approximately 1,400 firefighters on the ground at this time. Initial firefighters believed that the fire was now under control, however it grew in size around midnight Saturday due to thunderstorms and dry fuel pushing the fire further north towards Oregon.

California Governor. Gavin Newsom declaredThe county has declared a state emergency, which allows it to access additional resources and an increased response time. Nearly 22,000 people were forced from their homes. Through Tuesday, the National Weather Service had issued a red alert warning residents to be aware that strong winds and lightning could cause extreme fire behavior. McKinney Fire threatens more than 4,500 structures.

The Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office confirmedTwo people died in an accident that saw their bodies burned to the ground by the McKinney fire, west of Klamath River (Calif.).

Although authorities have yet to determine the cause of the massive fire, experts believe the main reason is obvious. According to Noah Diffenbaugh (Senior Fellow, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment), a multiyear drought, low temperatures, moisture levels in the fuel source, dry vegetation and wind contributed significantly to the increased risk of wildfire.

Rainfall helped keep the McKinney Fire’s growth minimal on Monday, and authorities say the edges of the fire haven’t spread on Monday or Tuesday due to cooler temperature and cloudy skies. The firefighters in Yreka, Fort Jones and other nearby villages are working hard to stop the flames from spreading.

As of Tuesday morning, the fire was still at 0%.

This year’s dangerous wildfire season

According to the NIFC there were more than 5.7million acres that have been burned this year. There has also been over 39,000 fires. That’s more than the area burned in all of 2019. And the number of fires is sure to increase—mirroring the upward trend seen in years including 2015, 2017 and 2020, when more than 10 million acres were engulfed by wildfires.

California is particularly at-risk. LeRoy Westerling is the Director of the Center for Climate Communication University of California Merced. According to Westerling, California’s wildfire seasons can be much more prolonged than in other West States. “Compared to what we historically thought of as normal, the risks are much higher than they used to be,” Westerling says. “We have warmer temperatures which means more evaporation and that dries up fuels to make them more flammable, and it also makes earlier snow melt at higher elevations, so that can push the start of a fire season earlier.”

An analysis of California’s current wildfire season by Cal Fire found that the state has continued to experience conditions that make wildfires more likely. Minimal precipitation caused moderate to extreme drought conditions even before the summer began, keeping fuel moisture levels low—increasing flammability— which in turn affects the frequency, severity, and size of forest fires, according to Westerling.

Since the McKinney Fire began to burn, there have already been six other fires reported in the state—three of them in the same county. Although these fires are still small they could grow.

What are the chances of more wildfires?

While wildfires are a natural part of California’s ecology, the current frequency and size of the fires is a recent development, which researchers believe is due to conditions created by climate change.

The ten most destructive wildfires in California occurred within five years. Research has also shown that the West has seen twice the amount of large fires since 1984, when the West was still under the influence of climate change. According to the United Nations, global wildfire risk could rise by 30 percent by 2050 according to an international report.

Westerling, who is currently working on California’s latest State Climate Assessment, which analyzes future climate risks and identifies solutions, says the state is working on strategies to reduce the damage from wildfires in the future. These include thinning forests and prescribed burning—the practice of deliberately starting controlled fires to help reduce wood and vegetation and promote the healthy growth of forests.

But these strategies alone won’t be enough to stop uncontrolled wildfires, warns Westerling. “The more extreme climate change gets the harder it gets to adapt,” he says. “So we have to do both — adapt and mitigate future climate change.”

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