Western wildfires have now burned an area bigger than New Jersey

Weather conditions and a huge backlog of management issues have led to the worst fire season on record—and it’s not over yet.

Early in the morning on September 28, while it was still dark, white ash floated down over parts of Sonoma and Napa counties in Northern California. By sunrise, fast-moving wildfires had burned more than 17 square miles of the state’s famed wine country, including a number of wineries and vineyards along the normally scenic Silverado Trail.

My brother, Ethan, was working the harvest on Fisher Vineyards in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, and was ordered to evacuate that morning, along with more than 50,000 other people. As he left, he said, the sky was red and he could smell smoke through his face mask. “It was insane, and terrifying,” he told me.

This year’s wine country wildfires haven’t reached the size of infernos from past years, but they are growing and still threaten to swallow many homes and workplaces. Perhaps those most affected by the raging fires are the region’s seasonal agricultural workers. Many are Hispanic, being paid hourly wages, and they may find themselves without jobs or homes if these blazes continue. As thousands flee the smoke, making their way toward evacuation centers and houses of nearby acquaintances, there is a lot of uncertainty in the air. Anxiety, too. “This sucks,” Ethan told me while driving away from the vineyard, heading for our cousin’s house in Los Angeles. “This really, really sucks.”

Wildfire season in the West usually becomes intense in late October, peaks at the end of the year, and tapers off through the spring. But a confluence of factors has made this year’s season spark early and become particularly devastating. Up and down the West Coast, high winds, droughts, lightning storms, and human activity have all added up to deliver frequent and severe fires. The flames have burned 5.8 million acres so far in the three states most affected—California, Oregon, and Washington, a total area larger than the state of New Jersey. Wildfires have killed at least 36 people to date in those states and destroyed hundreds of homes.

In California, forest undergrowth has been allowed to grow in recent years, providing more fuel for the flames. Regional phenomena called the Santa Ana and Diablo winds also kicked in earlier than usual, driving raging fires in the already hot, dry conditions. In the normally moister forests of Oregon and Washington, droughts and high temperatures were factors, too, but easterly winds reaching speeds of 50 miles an hour—what scientists are calling a once-in-a-hundred-years wind event—caused the fires there to flame up fast and made them difficult to contain.

Since 2002, the average acreage burned by wildfires in these three states has increased nearly threefold. This year, fire season has been so bad that the air quality in parts of the West Coast was briefly the worst in the world—and experts predict more damaging blazes are still to come.

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