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California wildfires down 90 percent this year

An average recent year sees nearly ten times the acreage burned

fire in butte county rages
The Camp Fire in 2018.
Photo by AP Photo/Noah Berger

After back to back years of apocalyptic Northern California wildfires, 2019 has thus far proved surprisingly mild.

According to Cal Fire’s current year statistics—updated earlier this week—the state fire agency has recorded 3,198 fires since January 1, burning a total of 23,748 acres.

The five-year average over the same period is 3,753 fires and 254,395 acres, meaning that so far this year the state’s fire acreage is down 90 percent.

And compared to just last year the difference is even more stark; this time in 2018, burnt acreage was up to nearly 619,000, making this year’s total to date just 3.83 percent of 2018’s carnage.

The 2019 figure increases considerably if US Forest Service statistics are factored in—up to 47,476 acres for the year so far. But that’s still (pardon the term) a drop in the bucket.

Cal Fire does caution that “these are preliminary numbers [...] and will likely change as dispatched wildfires may end up being other types of fires or false alarms. These numbers are subject to change until the final fire season reports are completed and tabulated.”

Even so, 2019 is so far notable for its lack of notability. Earlier this year the National Interagency Fire Center warned that “above normal significant fire potential is expected across the mountains and forests surrounding the Bay Area and in the Sacramento Valley,” but that has not yet manifested.

As of Thursday, Cal Fire is responding to just four burns across the entire state. So what’s the deal?

Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, state fire captain Scott McLean speculated that years of rain have helped fortify vegetation and that recent anti-fire measures have left fewer fire hazard areas.

The Insurance Information Institute, a non-profit based in New York City, notes that the US in general is seeing fewer wildfires this year, with 3.2 million acres burned nationally, compared to 4.8 million this time in 2018.

Verisk Wildfire Risk Analytics (which provides fire data to insurance companies) notes that California still leads the nation in the number of properties deemed “at risk” from wildfires, with over 2 million, compared to just 715,300 in second place Texas.

Although the concept of a “fire season” is a misnomer—wildfires can happen at any time in California—risk is usually more pronounced in late August, September, and October. So earlier worries about 2019’s wildfire potential could still prove well-founded.

But so far, no news seems to be good news.