Firefighters are finally gaining ground against the single largest wildfire in California history that has been burning through Santa Barbara and Ventura counties this month.
Spanning more than 281,000 acres, which is about 1.6 times the size of New York City, the massive Thomas Fire is 88 percent contained as of Tuesday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). Almost 900 firefighters joined the battle, bringing 116 fire engines, 26 helicopters, and 19 bulldozers to bear against a blaze that has been burning since December 4.
The fire has burned through more than 1,000 structures; it also claimed the life of a firefighter on December 14 and is blamed for two other deaths. Soot and ash from the flames led to record-high air pollution in the region, making it too dangerous to even be outside.
It’s a tragic finale to what has already California’s worst fire season ever as several huge, deadly infernos burned uncontrolled for days across the state.
The Tubbs Fire, which ignited in October in Sonoma County, torched 5,643 structures, making it the most destructive wildfire on record in California, and killed 22 people. Across the state, fires killed more than 40 people and scorched more than 1.2 million acres, towering over the five-year average of 202,751 acres.
Several natural and human-caused factors have converged this year to add to the devastation. Following years of drought, the wettest winter on record drenched the state, feeding a bumper crop of trees, grasses, and shrubs throughout California. Then heat waves baked much of the state, drying out the vegetation, followed by unusually stiff seasonal winds.
At the same time, populations are growing throughout California, especially close to fire-prone areas. Human activities ignite the vast majority of wildfires, and climate change is worsening forest fires throughout the United States, though researchers don’t see a connection between climate change and the current brush fires around Los Angeles.
As a result, fires have become more dangerous, and more destructive blazes are in store for the Golden State. As you can see in this chart, 14 of the top 20 largest fires in California history have occurred since 2000.
University of California Los Angeles environmental scientist Glen MacDonald called it a “perfect firestorm.” He added: “It really shows you our relative power to nature. We sometimes overestimate how much we can handle.”
For now, fire officials are optimistic that the devastating fire season is coming to a close and that the Thomas Fire is winding down.
“Even though fuels in the fire area remain critically dry, with shorter days and lack of significant winds no forward progress of the fire is expected,” according to Cal Fire.