Bigger and more means better, right?

In the case of wildfires, not necessarily. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean worse. The fire landscape, and our place in it is a lot more complicated than that.

While the recent King fire raged this past summer, my husband commented that it was unprecedented.

Okay, he didn’t use that word exactly, but essentially, he felt concerned about the size and severity of the fire. And while I agree the King fire was unacceptably large and severe, I also want to stress that fire of any size is not an uncommon occurrence in our California landscapes. Not only is it common, but it is a very natural occurrence and, sometimes, necessary.

And here’s the clincher, even fires that burn hundreds of thousands of acres are common and necessary. In fact, the size of fires we see today pale to obscurity when compared to estimated pre-1800s acres burned. Remember, back then, there were no fire-fighters around to put out a blaze. No air tankers with loads of retardant to dump. And no (or few) homes to burn.

So, yes, fires like the King fire are terrible. They are often started by stupid humans and burn so severely they wipe out large chunks of our forests. But, do keep in mind that on the grand scheme of things, it’s just a drop in the “reservoir” bucket of fire “potential” (see my post Every day is a burn day).

Recent Fire History

Each year, CalFire (along with federal and local agencies) records and documents all fires that occur within and on the immediate border of California. They compile the data and offer it to the public in GIS format. I often use this data layer when compiling maps for reports. So, let’s look at the numbers. In particular, in this post I’ll look at the last 100 years of data compiled by CalFire. In later posts, I would like to compare these numbers to paleo-fire history data. However, spatial estimates of fire size based on fire scars is not very easy to come by. But I’ll take a look at what we do know and extrapolate from there and we’ll see just how “unprecedented” fires like the King fire (2014), or even the Rim fire of 2013, are.

More Fire

For the past 100 years in California, though the number of fires reported each year varies, there’s no denying that each year we see more fire-starts. In addition, once these fires get “out of hand”, they consume what we think are significant swaths of forested land.


The graph above shows 100 years of reported* fire history in California. The red line graphs the total number of fires for each year. We see that it varies from year to year, sometimes significantly so. However, the overall trend (marked as a dark, gray line) is increasing. Each year, the number of fires reported has gone up.

In addition, the number of fires over 100,000 acres are becoming more frequent. Prior to 1970s, fires of this size occurred once every ten years or so. But now? Every year. In 2002, 2003, and 2007, we had two large fires occurring in one fire season.


So, yes, there are more wildland fires dotting our dry landscape and they are getting bigger. This is obvious.

But – is that a bad thing?

Paleo-fire History

Well, if you have a home in Sierra Nevada, or if you own timber that can burn at the drop of a match, or if you care about our ecosystem, then, yes, it is.

However, it doesn’t mean we need less fire, but more.

Getting numbers for fire history prior to European settlement of California is rather hard, but we do have extensive evidence of fire regularly impacting our landscape. This evidence comes in the form of charcoal sediments in lake beds and fire scars on trees (both living and dead). Study after study have shown that fire visits our forests as frequently as every 2 years**. It’s not hard to imagine every year, given the right conditions, a fire was burning on the California landscape.

In addition, these fires would burn pretty much all year long. The only thing that stopped them were:

  • A lack of fuel,
  • Relative humidity increased to the point of fire extinction, or
  • A drenching rain came along.

It’s not hard to imagine that these fires managed to burn extensive swaths of California and beyond. Our native plants and the very ecosystem have lived with the threat of fire longer than we’ve been here. In subsequent posts, I’ll argue how modern fire suppression has harmed rather than helped.

Notes and References
  • * Data downloaded from CalFire, Fire Perimeters 2013 data version.
  • Wildfire – A century of failed forest policy edited by George Wuerthner (2006 by the Foundation for Deep Ecology).