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Why Summer and Fall Fires in California Are So Dangerous

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It’s almost July, which is typically the beginning of California’s fire season.

You’ve probably heard that wildfires in the Golden State have increasingly become a year-round danger, no longer limited to a few months a year. But even still, the start of the traditional summer-and-fall fire season brings a slew of heightened risks for us to contend with.

It’s true that drought conditions and extreme heat in California have increased the likelihood that fires break out in the winter. This year, in January, typically one of the state’s wettest periods, a wildfire swept through Big Sur — an event the National Weather Service called “surreal.”

But those off-season fires are generally low-intensity and less likely to exhibit the unpredictable and destructive behavior that has characterized the worst California fires in recent years. In 2020, more acres burned in the state than ever before, driven largely by massive fires that began in August and September.

“The ability for fires to burn straight through winter is probably increasing, but there’s still a very pronounced seasonality,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “I would bet a lot of money that August and September and October will see a whole lot more fire, and a whole lot more destructive fire.”

By the time summer arrives, California has typically gone months without rain, and warm weather has left vegetation bone-dry. So the fires that erupt then tend to burn hotter and faster — and are harder to control.

Seventeen of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California history occurred between July and October. The other three broke out in November or December, at the end of long dry periods that mimicked peak fire season conditions.

Summer and fall fires in recent years have destroyed thousands of homes, sterilized the soil, killed ancient trees and created what looks like a “nuclear apocalypse landscape,” Swain told me.

And, unfortunately, California is likely to endure similarly destructive fires through the remainder of this year, experts say.

The state is in the middle of a severe drought and is expected to experience above-normal heat this summer, conditions that have contributed to particularly severe fire seasons in recent history. The state’s two largest fires ever were in the past two years, the Dixie fire in 2021 and the August Complex fire in 2020.

Already, in Southern California, fuel moisture levels — or the amount of water in the vegetation — are where they should be at least four months later in the year, in terms of dryness, The Los Angeles Times reported. Officials in Northern California are making similarly treacherous forecasts.

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Today’s tip comes from Alan Bostick, who recommends a vista in central California near the Nevada border:

“Some 19 miles northwest of Bishop on U.S. Highway 395 is a roadside scenic vista that offers an incredible view of the two mountain ranges that define Owens Valley. In particular, the peaks along the eastern face of the Sierras are stunning.

Every so often I have been on a mountain and desert road trip that takes me this way, and each time I have to stop here and look. This vista point is just about my most favorite place in California, and that is saying a lot.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.


Summer is here. What’s your favorite part of the season in California?

Email us at CAtoday@nytimes.com with your stories, memories or recommendations.


This weekend, thousands of Californians are expected to descend on Santa Barbara for its annual solstice celebration.

The event, which includes live music and a parade, will be held downtown on Friday and Saturday. The theme of the 48th annual Santa Barbara Summer Solstice is “Shine.”

Read more about what’s planned for this year.


Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Largest continent (4 letters).

Briana Scalia and Isabella Grullón Paz contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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