WILDFIRESCalifornia's 2020 Wildfire Season

Published 10 May 2022

2020 was a record-breaking fire year for California. Nearly 9,900 wildfires burned 4.3 million acres in California 2020, twice the previous record. 2020 was the first year acres burned came close to burn rates before Euro-American settlement. A new study calls for management shift to reduce fire severity, not acres burned.

Just over 9,900 wildfires burned about 4.3 million acres in 2020. That’s more than twice the previous record of acres burned in California. Yet it is about average compared to burn rates likely experienced before Euro-American settlement, according to a study from the University of California, Davis, that summarizes the 2020 fire season and examines its drivers.

The study, published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, said 2020 was the first year in recorded history that burned area in California came close to rates seen before the 1800s, when an estimated 3-4 million acres burned in an average year.

Increased fire severity is the far greater concern, the study said. The authors advise that resource and fire managers working in forests shift their emphasis from reducing burned area to reducing fire severity and fire damage to people and property, and restoring key ecosystem functions after fire.

“Although burned area in 2020 was very high, it is not unprecedented if you take the longer view,” said lead author Hugh Safford, a forest and fire ecologist with the UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy and chief scientist at Vibrant Planet, an environmental public benefits corporation. “The problem is that much of the burning we are seeing now is not restorative but destructive. The need to shift management goals is key, as is understanding the very important role that fuels play in driving fire severity.”

A New Measure of Success
California is the most fire-prone state in the United States. For the past century the key measure of success among forest managers has been decreased burned area, but that needs to change, according to the study.

Reducing burned area remains an important goal in ecosystems like chaparral and sagebrush in coastal, lowland and eastern California. In these places, frequent fires lead to ecosystem degradation and threaten human safety.

But over the past 40 years, the increases in burned area in California occurred almost entirely in central and northern California forests and woodlands rather than in southern California chaparral, which used to be the poster child for the California “fire problem.” This is even though climate warming has been more extreme in southern California.