SACRAMENTO, Calif. - More than 17,000 firefighters battled 29 major wildfires across California on Monday. Since mid-August, the blazes have destroyed almost 5,000 buildings and killed 22 people in the state.
This year, fires have engulfed 3.3 million acres of California, about the size of eight Bay Area Counties.
There has been a long-standing drought in the Sierra Nevada that has severely weakened tens of millions of trees. Dry conditions have placed a great deal of stress on trees, by taxing and ultimately stopping their ability to take on nourishment. It has also damaged their immune systems and their ability to defend themselves from heat, disease, and insect infestation.
"The 2012 to 2015 drought killed hundreds of millions of trees and that really is an impact because what happens now is that those trees are starting to fall, many of them were left in place," said UC Berkeley Fire Scientist Professor Scott Stephens.
With temperatures inching ever higher, the growing bark beetle population that no longer lays dormant by cold weather, bore into the trees, devastating the forests. All of that adds readily burnable fuel to future fires.
"Climate change is another factor that's compounding the issue," said Professor Stephens.
The U.S. Forest Service said 163 million trees have died as a result of drought and infestation.
The fungus Sudden Oak Death has already killed off another 10 million trees and continues to thrive.
"Here in the Bay Area, we have Sudden Oak Death, which actually is killing a lot of tanoaks. That's actually increasing fire fuel loads in the Bay Area," said Stephens.
Then throw in human factors: careless people starting fires, arsonists, and poor forest and vegetation management which has tripled the number of trees in California that are dying at a faster rate.
"And now we see those trees coming down on the ground, that contributes to fire," Stephens said.
In California alone, the federal government owns about 48 million acres of the state's 100-plus million acres; just under half. Nonetheless, President Trump has scolded California to rake the forests to reduce wildfires. To that Gov. Gavin Newsom said last month, "40 million Americans happen to live here and to defund our efforts on wildfire suppression because he said we haven’t raked enough leaves."
On Monday, Newsom doubled down on that, "One thing is fundamental, 57% of the land in the state is federal forest land, 3% is California.”
What President Trump has yet to acknowledge, it that much of the land that has burned for years and right now, is federal land under federal control. Consistently year over year, the amount of federal lands that have burned is just about half the total acres burned in the state.