Firefighters work to control a blaze near Redding, California, on July 31.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images


Into the Fire

Firefighters in California have been battling some of the biggest wildfires in state history.

Jim McMahon/Mapman® (map); Source: Cal Fire (active wildfires as of September 17, 2018)

The air was hot and filled with smoke. Vino Rogers was barely able to see or breathe. Everywhere he turned, trees were bursting into flames.

“I was looking at a wall of fire coming down a hill,” Rogers remembers.

Rogers is a firefighter with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). He was battling the largest wildfire in California state history. Called the Mendocino Complex Fire, it burned an area larger than 340,000 football fields.

The Mendocino Complex Fire was actually two wildfires that broke out on July 27. The fires started very near each other. So firefighters treated them as one event. It took fire crews more than five weeks to get the huge fire under control. Even then, their work was far from over.  

At least 14,000 firefighters battled blazes across California this past summer. By the middle of September, wildfires had torched twice as much land as they had by that same time in 2017. Fire officials say this year could be one of the worst ever for California wildfires.

The air was hot. It was filled with smoke. Vino Rogers could barely see or breathe. Everywhere he turned, trees were bursting into flames.

“I was looking at a wall of fire coming down a hill,” Rogers remembers.

Rogers is a firefighter. He works for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). He was battling the largest wildfire in California state history. It was called the Mendocino Complex Fire. It burned an area larger than 340,000 football fields.

The Mendocino Complex Fire was actually two wildfires. They both broke out on July 27. The fires started very near each other. Firefighters treated them as one event. It took fire crews more than five weeks to get the huge fire under control. But their work was still far from over. 

At least 14,000 firefighters battled blazes across California this past summer. By the middle of September, wildfires had torched twice as much land as they had by that same time in 2017. Fire officials say this year could be one of the worst ever for California wildfires. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Images

Burning Up

Other Western states have also been feeling the burn this year. But the blazes in California have been especially bad. The number of fires isn’t unusual. It’s their size that has officials alarmed.

“They’re growing more rapidly than we’ve seen in the past, and they’re getting bigger,” says Scott McLean, a chief at Cal Fire.

So far this year, blazes across the state have been responsible for the deaths of 11 people. Six of them were firefighters. Flames have engulfed more than 2,000 homes and other buildings.

In the past, Cal Fire’s busiest time for fighting fires was in late summer and early fall. But that’s no longer the case.  

“There’s no season anymore,” says McLean. “It’s year-round.”

For example, the second-largest wildfire in state history started last December.   

Other Western states have felt the burn this year. But the blazes in California have been especially bad. The number of fires isn’t unusual. It’s their size that has officials alarmed.

“They’re growing more rapidly than we’ve seen in the past, and they’re getting bigger,” says Scott McLean, a chief at Cal Fire.

In 2018, blazes across the state have caused the deaths of 11 people. Six of them were firefighters. Flames have engulfed more than 2,000 buildings.

Cal Fire’s busiest time for fighting fires used to be late summer and early fall. But that’s no longer the case. 

“There’s no season anymore,” says McLean. “It’s year-round.”

For example, the second-largest wildfire in state history started last December.   

Turning Up the Heat

So what’s fueling the fires? First, there’s the hot, dry weather. Temperatures in California have been slowly rising over the past century as part of global climate change. This past July was the hottest month ever recorded in the state. The extreme heat, along with a lack of moisture in the air, dried out trees and other vegetation. Dead grasses, trees, and bushes make the perfect fuel for wildfires because they burn easily.

Plus, California is recovering from a five-year drought that ended last year. A drought is a long period of time with far less rainfall or snowfall than usual. Experts estimate that the long dry spell killed 129 million trees. That set the stage for this year’s explosive wildfires.

Then all it took was a spark. Fire can start naturally from lightning. But about 90 percent of wildfires are started accidentally by people. A blaze can begin when a cigarette or a campfire isn’t put out properly.

Once fires start, strong winds help them spread quickly. As the winds shift, wildfires can change direction with little or no warning. These conditions make fighting fires even more difficult. As wildfires rage on, there’s no rest in sight for firefighters like Rogers.

“You stay on one fire and then you roll right into the next one,” he says. “It just keeps on going.”

So what’s fueling the fires? First, there’s the hot, dry weather. Temperatures in California have been slowly rising over the past century. This is part of global climate change. July was the hottest month ever recorded in the state. The extreme heat and lack of moisture in the air dried out trees and other vegetation. Dead grasses, trees, and bushes make the perfect fuel for wildfires. They burn easily.

California is also recovering from a five-year drought. It ended last year. A drought is a long period of time with far less rainfall or snowfall than usual. Experts say that the dry spell killed 129 million trees. That set the stage for this year’s explosive wildfires.

Then all it took was a spark. Fire can start naturally from lightning. But about 90 percent of wildfires are started accidentally by people. A blaze can begin when a cigarette or a campfire isn’t put out properly.

Strong winds help fires spread quickly. As the winds shift, wildfires can change direction with little or no warning. These conditions make fighting fires even harder. The wildfires rage on. But there’s no rest in sight for firefighters like Rogers.

“You stay on one fire and then you roll right into the next one,” he says. “It just keeps on going.”    

José Luis Villegas/Sacramento Bee via ZUMA Wire

1. How do the 2018 wildfires in California compare with those in previous years? Include an example in your response.

2. What does Scott McLean mean when he says “There’s no season anymore. It’s year-round”?

3. How has California’s weather helped fuel wildfires?

4. According to the sidebar “How to Fight a Wildfire,” how do firefighters battle wildfires?

1. How do the 2018 wildfires in California compare with those in previous years? Include an example in your response.

2. What does Scott McLean mean when he says “There’s no season anymore. It’s year-round”?

3. How has California’s weather helped fuel wildfires?

4. According to the sidebar “How to Fight a Wildfire,” how do firefighters battle wildfires?

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