Wildfire has been part of California long before this land was given its modern name. Before the 1800s, about 1.8 million hectares (ha) would burn each year naturally. Lightning would strike, vegetation would ignite, and the skies would fill with smoke. The Native Americans respected Fire. They knew how to handle it, and they knew it’s not something you “fight.” It’s a natural force you work with, guiding the fire to burn just enough to make room for seedlings and clear old brush.
No doubt we are so afraid of wildfires because there are so many more of us living here now, and we’re building houses deeper and deeper into the wilderness. Nature has nowhere to go. Add to that increasing heat waves, logging, water consumption, poorly maintained electrical equipment—and yes, arson, and you stack the odds orders of magnitude higher.
And perhaps back then, there were more Dragons of Fire and Rain to help the native people. Unlike the dragons from Hollywood films, they’re just as shy as the animals on the ground. They want little to do with most humans. Except those they come to trust.
We have to bring the Dragons back.
Below is a list of some of the largest fires in recent memory here in California, and around the world. But as you take in the numbers, all the acres burned, keep in mind this eye-opening article about what the photos we usually see in the news don’t actually show you.
Caldor Fire (Lake Tahoe)
221,835 acres burned
963,309 acres burned
August Complex Fire
1,032,648 acres burned
SCU Complex Fire
396,624 acres burned
Camp Fire (Paradise)
153,336 acres burned (and 85 lives lost)
Mendocino Complex Fire
459,123 acres burned
281,893 acres burned
It’s not just here in California. In 2020 and 2021 especially, wildfires raged literally all around the world. The worst was, in painful irony, in Siberia. This is because, contrary to intuition, the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions are warning faster than the global average.
It’s getting serious. According to research by the World Resources Institute, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Unesco, more forests are expected to switch from sinks to sources of carbon in the coming decades.
153,205 acres burned (108,726 acres burned in July)
2019–2020 bushfire season
46 million acres and 10,000 structures burned
2021 wildfire season
10,329,005 acres burned
741+ acres burned (Kalajoki)
271,815 acres burned (120,000 acres burned in July)
1/3 of Simplipal Biosphere Reserve, Asia’s 2nd largest biosphere, has burned (exact figures not available)
269,344 acres burned
247 acres burned
46 million acres burned
27181 acres burned
481,855 acres burned (420,079 acres burned in July)
Header photograph courtesy of J. Mendoza, firefighter