Reflecting on Past Wildfires to Predict the 2023 Fire Season in Northern California

It appears we’re finally moving beyond the honeymoon phase of the historic winter in NorCal (although people are still skiing) and the lakes continue to brim with water while the waterfalls overflow. The flow will persist until fall, but we’ve now returned to the scorching slough of triple-digit heat and, unfortunately, fire season.

For me, fire season invariably commences on July 23, when I encounter those triggering “On this day in 2018” posts about the Carr Fire. I’ll never forget that day – and I was halfway across the globe. But I have close friends who will always be haunted by that fire.

This got me pondering – we experienced an impressive winter, but was it sufficient to extinguish yet another catastrophic fire season? To delve into the possibilities of this summer’s fire season, I delved into past seasons, leading me down a path of personal reminiscence with wildfires in NorCal.

A Lifetime of Fire

The Jones Fire was my first experience with a truly devastating fire.

Growing up off Canyon Road between Redding and Happy Valley, wildfires were a familiar part of life. Almost every summer, we had to evacuate due to nearby fires. Back then, a few houses would burn here and there, but entire communities weren’t devastated. That all changed in 1999 when the Jones Fire ravaged nearly 1,000 structures south of Shasta Lake. At 14 years old, I witnessed my school’s gym housing people who had lost their homes, including my good friend’s family. It felt like we were at war, and they were refugees.

In October 2017, I was set to attend an event near Santa Rosa, which was canceled due to the Tubbs Fire. That fire was shocking, destroying more than 5,500 homes and claiming 22 lives. When I drove through the aftermath a few months later, the devastation was far worse than the Jones Fire. At the time, it was California’s most destructive fire in history – a record that would be broken just a year later.

Following the Tubbs Fire, I made the decision to include fires in Active NorCal’s coverage of the outdoors. These fires significantly impact our audience and the outdoors’ accessibility. I wanted to ensure our audience was informed about closures, air quality, and fire safety best practices. Sadly, that decision seemed prophetic as we embarked on a 5 year period that would produce the 7 largest fires in California history.

A Truly Historic and Devastating Year

The Carr Fire ushered in the “new normal” of fires in NorCal.

Fast forward to July 23, 2018, and I was in a Parisian bed during the middle of the night on vacation with my girlfriend (now my wife) with the jetlag jitters. My phone buzzed on the nightstand, alerting me to a fire that had just started in Whiskeytown. At first, I didn’t think much of it; forested areas around Redding burned frequently. This turned out to be different.

As the sun rose in Paris, it was setting over Whiskeytown, and that fire began acting in ways I’d never seen before. It moved over the ridge at an unprecedented speed, towards the neighborhoods of west Redding, where many of my close friends lived. Reporting feverishly on the fire that was now destroying my favorite childhood outdoor destination, I was also texting my friends to ensure their safety. It was evident that this was an unprecedented event.

The Carr Fire would rage for an astonishing 6 months, claiming 1,600 structures, and 8 lives. About 25 of my friends and families lost their homes in that fire, making it intensely personal. But what came next was even more shocking.

While the Carr Fire was still burning in November 2018, another fire began about 85 miles south in Paradise. This was another deeply personal incident for me. Having attended college at Chico State, I spent many summer days swimming in the flumes of Paradise. I managed a car wash on Skyway in Chico around 2008, where a considerable portion of its customer base was from Paradise, and about half the staff lived there.

On November 8, the Camp Fire erupted, and I was up early reporting on it. The flames moved so fast that no one could keep up with what was happening in the town. By midday, I saw a picture online that showed the “Welcome to Paradise” sign on fire. I knew the town was lost.

I had many friends who lost homes in that fire, as it became the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history. The term “new normal” is often used, and it’s the best way to describe the year we had just endured with Tubbs, Carr, and Camp. The entire world was watching us.

What’s Coming in 2023?

Then came the epic winter of 2018-19, historic in its own right. Mammoth Mountain and Palisades Tahoe recorded their highest snowfall in 30 years, including the snowiest May on record. Despite the challenges this posed to burn scars, it felt like just what we needed.

When summer of 2019 arrived, the lakes were full and the waterfalls were bursting, much like this year. So that year is our best reference for this upcoming fire season – which brings me to some good news.

When you examine the list of the 10 biggest and deadliest fires in California’s history, it mostly comprises fires between 2017 and 2023. However, there is one glaring exception – 2019. Not a single fire from that year ranks in the top 20 in terms of size or destruction. There were around 7,000 fires that year, burning roughly 277,000 acres. Those figures might appear high, but when you compare them to the Dixie Fire of 2021, which scorched more than a million acres on its own, 2019 was a relatively very light fire year.

If history repeats itself, this year should be a light fire season, especially compared to the past 6 years. The ground and forests are saturated with water, and the fuels shouldn’t have the spark they have had in recent years. Also, with millions of acres burned since 2017, there are a lot less places to burn.

This doesn’t absolve anyone of their responsibilities concerning fire safety, but it could offer a reprieve from fire seasons that have caused PTSD for so many who have been impacted in recent years. Let’s stay steadfast in our approach to fire safety, stay vigilant in receiving information and tips on nearby fires, and most importantly, stay active my friends.

Zach O'Brien

Zach O'Brien is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Active NorCal

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