LOS ANGELES (AFP) – Wildfires are nothing new in California. But in the third year of a historic drought, the tinder-dry western US state is battling near-record numbers of blazes.
And the normal fire season has only just begun.
Nearly 7,500 firefighters are currently struggling to douse the so-called King Fire east of Sacramento which has forced almost 3,000 people to evacuate as it rages across an area bigger than the city of Las Vegas.
But while this is fairly typical for an ordinary year, it is far from the first of the season.
“Already this year California responded to nearly 5,000 wildfires, where in an average year that number would be closer to 3,900,” said Daniel Berlant of California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire.
“There has been a significant increase in fire activity due to the fact that conditions are so dry from the drought,” he told AFP, noting that “historically, California experiences its largest and most damaging wildfires in the fall months”.
“So we’re just now getting to the peak of fire season.”
Blazes have been erupting for months. In May, thousands of residents had to leave their homes due to a surge of fires which triggered the partial evacuation of a military base and a tourist amusement park.
In July and again in August wildfires forced more than 13,000 evacuation orders near California’s landmark Yosemite National Park, disrupting vacations for some of the millions of tourists who visit every year from the United States and abroad.
In all there have been 1,000 more wildfires than average, and 700 more than last year, which was already the worst for a decade, according to CalFire.
“In our west, wildfire season now stretches most of the year,” President Barack Obama said in a speech on climate change to the UN General Assembly earlier this week.
Talk of climate change certainly rings true in California, which is baking in the third straight year of an intense drought – the worst for up to a century, according to Governor Jerry Brown.
The drought has devastated farming in the Central Valley, known as the nation’s food basket, but which is struggling to grow crops and raise cattle on parched soil.