Traffic jams are a fact of life in Southern California. But few motorists have seen the likes of the one that stranded thousands of vehicles in May on Interstate 5 near San Marcos, about 35 miles north of San Diego. As vehicles idled, walls of flame arcing as high as 50 feet, and whipped by winds of up to 70 miles per hour, raced along an adjacent hillside, ripping through acres of parched trees and shrubs and blotting out the sky with roiling, glowing, thick smoke. And that wasn't the only out-of-control blaze raging: At one point, San Diego County firefighters were grappling with nine separate wildfires – and six of those blazes were winning.
The fires burned for nine days, scorching 9,000 acres, forcing the evacuation of 120,000 residents from homes and businesses, and sending nearly $60 million worth of property and firefighting funds up in smoke. But what really made the San Diego fires scary wasn't their ferocity so much as the timing. "We usually don't see these kinds of conditions until late in September," says Captain Richard Cordova of Cal Fire, the state's wildfire-fighting agency. "It caught a lot of people off guard."
It probably won't catch anyone off guard next year, though, because big, out-of-season fires are starting to look like the new normal. For as long back as there are records, California's wildfire season hasn't truly gotten under way until fall. But through most of 2013 and 2014, wildfires have been raging almost constantly, essentially leaving the state with a 12-month wildfire season.
And it's not just California. In May, Arizona, Oklahoma, and even Alaska all were hit by large wildfires, months ahead of schedule. More blazes are occurring in fall and winter, as well. "In November, a fire in the Colorado Rockies burned across a snow-covered forest while firefighters watched, astounded," says Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, in Claremont, California, who studies wildfire. "That may be something no one has ever seen before."
Over the past three years, nearly every western state has experienced its most devastating wildfires in more than 50 years. In 2012, Colorado's Waldo Canyon Fire wasted 18,000 acres of wildland, displaced 32,000 people, and burned more than 340 homes. That fire broke a record that had been set just a few days before it started, when the High Park Fire burned more than 250 homes, killed one person, and burned down 87,000 acres. And it was a record that would stand only until the following year, when the 2013 Black Forest Fire incinerated 509 homes.
In 2011, Arizona lost half a million acres in a single fire; two years later, a massive blaze claimed the lives of 19 hotshots. In 2012, New Mexico saw 372,000 acres burned, and Oregon lost 1.2 million acres. That same year, single fires cost Idaho 341,000 acres and Montana 250,000 acres, while a Washington fire burned down 61 homes. California's 2013 Rim Fire burned into Yosemite, destroying 257,000 acres of some of the state's most pristine wilderness.
These big fires not only spread farther, they tend to burn hotter and are harder to put out, making them more dangerous to those who put themselves in harm's way. "They become 'canopy fires' that jump fast from treetop to treetop, with temperatures reaching a thousand degrees," says Bernhard Voelkelt, a California wildfire risk consultant. "They are horrific for firefighters."
"In military terms, what these fires do is encircle the community. Then they close in," says fire-safety expert Bernhard Voelkelt, on land scorched by the May 2014 Etiwana Fire in Rancho Cucamonga, California. (Photograph by Peter Bohler)
It's the same story throughout the South, much of the Southeast, and even parts of the Northeast – all of these regions have experienced record wildfires. Firefighters, forest managers, community leaders, and scientists tell the same tale: They've never seen so many fires of such size, intensity, and destruction.
Another point of agreement: It's going to get much worse. "We can't manage wildfire any longer," says Miller. "It is out of our control."