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California exceeds 4 million acres burned by wildfires in 2020

More than 8,200 fires have consumed more than double the previous record, fire officials said.
Firefighters work as the Glass Fire burns in Calistoga, Calif., on Thursday.Josh Edelson / AFP - Getty Images

ALAMEDA, Calif. — California marked a grim milestone Sunday as the number of acres burned during a record wildfire year surpassed 4 million, officials said.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, didn't provide an exact amount of land that had been scorched this year, but it said in a daily statewide summary that more than 8,200 fires have burned "well over" 4 million acres.

Annual statistics from the department dating to 1987 show that 2020 has more than doubled the previous record.

As many as 20,000 firefighters, some coming from as far away as Israel, have responded to scores of major fires across the state this year. Thirty-one people have died.

The largest, most destructive blazes have occurred since mid-August, when thousands of lightning strikes sparked dozens of fires in Northern California, including the largest wildfire in state history, the nearly 1 million-acre August Complex fire, which is burning across six counties.

Cal Fire said Sunday that the fire has killed one person and destroyed 159 structures. It was 51 percent contained.

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North of the San Francisco Bay Area, thousands of firefighters continued battling a blaze that roared through wine country Sept. 27 in high temperatures and powerful winds. More than 36,000 people remained under mandatory evacuation orders in Sonoma and Napa counties Sunday, Cal Fire Deputy Chief Jonathan Cox said.

As 12 teams continued surveying damage from the Glass Fire, the number of homes and businesses that have been destroyed rose to 564, Cox said. The teams have surveyed about 50 percent of the area, he said.

Brian Newman, a fire behavior analyst with Cal Fire, said a combination of rugged terrain, parched vegetation and strong winds Saturday intensified the northern and southern sections of the fire, which grew to nearly 64,000 acres.

Napa County issued new mandatory evacuation orders Sunday for an area near Mount Saint Helena, a 4,300-foot peak in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. Images from the mountain showed a massive column of smoke rising from below.

Forecasters said a high pressure ridge that has baked the region for days is expected to weaken later this week, bringing the possibility of much-needed rain.

Officials and experts have attributed the state's increasingly intense wildfire seasons to climate change and a buildup of dead and dried-out vegetation across California's 33 million acres of forestland.

Speaking to reporters last week, Cal Fire Director Thom Porter compared 2020 to 1910, when one of the largest wildfires ever recorded tore through parts of Washington state, Montana, Idaho and British Columbia.

Porter said he expects it to take several decades to adequately prepare for increasingly intense wildfire seasons.

"It's not just more firefighters," he said. "It's not just more aircraft. It's not just fuel reduction project work. It's not just defensible space or home hardening. It's absolutely every one of those things. We need very piece of the system to be raised to meet the challenge that the changing climate is giving us."