California’s Camp Fire becomes the deadliest blaze in state history

A burned vehicle in the driveway of a Paradise, Calif. home.
A burned vehicle in the driveway of a Paradise, Calif. home.

Image: PETER DASILVA/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

After transforming the once tranquil town of Paradise, California into charred automobiles and tales of horror, the Camp Fire takes its infamous spot as the deadliest wildfire in California history. 

At a multi-agency press conference Monday night, the Butte Country Sheriff’s Office announced that 42 have been confirmed dead. This grim statistic surpasses the 29 Los Angelenos killed by the Griffith Park Fire in 1933. While it’s unclear just how many individuals are still missing, officials said they’ve located 231 previously missing persons, who are now safe, and have received 1514 requests to check on or locate people. But, that large number may include multiple requests for the same person.

After sparking on November 8, the newly-born blaze raced with rapid, potentially unprecedented speed toward the forested community of 26,000. In just 24 hours, the Camp Fire burned 70,000 acres of exceptionally dried-out vegetation. 

“That blows your mind,” Brenda Belongie, lead meteorologist of the U.S. Forest Service’s Predictive Services in Northern California, said on Friday.

The wildfire isn’t just the deadliest blaze in California history. It’s also the most destructive. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, reports that 6,453 single residences have been destroyed, while 260 commercial structures went down in flames. 

This toppled the previous record for destructiveness, set just last year by the Tubbs Fire, which also took 22 lives. 

Now, seven of the top 10 most destructive wildfires in state history have occurred since the year 2000, and nine of the top 10 largest in recorded state history have occurred over the same period. 

The reality that the Golden State’s fires are burning more land, destroying more homes, and inevitably killing Californians is consistent with a region that’s growing hotter, and dryer. 

Larger wildfires — though also strongly influenced by weather and human manipulation of the land — are a well-understood consequence of climate change. 

This is particularly the case in California, which has experienced larger, more destructive wildfires in the last two decades as the region becomes both hotter and drier. In particular, conditions over large swaths of the state, notably forested Northern California, are seeing seasonal records or near-records for dryness.   

Now enter the Camp Fire. 

Like many climate change implications, scientists aren’t arguing that climate change itself causes wildfires, hurricanes, or drought. These events happen regardless. 

But climate change often makes these events more extreme

And in the case of the Camp Fire, the inferno capitalized upon land that wasn’t just dried out and whipped over the forest by seasonal winds: California has had little-to-no rain this autumn, and experienced record heat this summer. 

The land is tinder, waiting to burn. 

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