Wildfires in California have burned more than 1.76 million acres this year, an area larger than the state of Delaware. Firefighters are currently battling 15 major wildfires, which strains resources and has prompted a number of evacuation orders.
Residents and visitors in the popular tourist town South Lake Tahoe, for instance, have been ordered to evacuate the area. The evacuation orders, which are unusual for South Lake Tahoe, came after numerous neighboring communities were ordered to evacuate as the Caldor Fire approached the area.
“There is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before. The critical thing for the public to know is evacuate early,” Chief Thom Porter, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, told the Associated Press. “For the rest of you in California: Every acre can and will burn someday in this state.”
With the number of fires, their size, and the possibility of loss of life in mind, the U.S. Forest Service announced it is closing all 20 million acres of California’s national forests to public access for two weeks. The forests will be closed from 11:59 p.m. tonight, August 31, to 11:59 p.m. September 17.
“We do not take this decision lightly, but this is the best choice for public safety,” Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien said. “It is especially hard with the approaching Labor Day weekend, when so many people enjoy our national forests.”
A Growing Number Of Wildfires
“More than 6,800 wildfires have burned 1.7 million acres across all jurisdictions in California, and the National Wildfire Preparedness Level (PL) has been at PL5 since July 14, 2021,” the Forest Service explained. “This is only the third time in the past 20 years that the nation has reached PL 5 by mid-July — indicating the highest level of wildland fire activity.”
California is currently dealing with 15 major wildfires, including the second-largest wildfire to ever hit the state, the Dixie Fire. That fire has burned at least 771,183 acres, more than 1,204 square miles, Cal Fire reports. For perspective, that area is more than twice the area of Los Angeles.
Then there’s the Caldor Fire, which prompted evacuation orders for the Lake Tahoe area. That fire, which is 14 percent contained, has burned more than 177,000 acres, destroyed more than 470 structures, and damaged 39 others, according to Cal Fire. More than 3,500 firefighters are working to control the fire.
Closing National Forests
In their announcement that all national forests in California will be closing, the Forest Service explained that:
“Although the potential for large fires and risk to life and property is not new, what is different is that we are facing: (a) record level fuel and fire conditions; (b) fire behavior that is beyond the norm of our experience and models such as large, quick runs in the night; (c) significantly limited initial attack resources, suppression resources, and Incident Command Teams to combat new fire starts and new large fires; and (d) no predicted weather relief for an extended period of time into the late fall.”
Due to the hot and dry weather in California, all new fires have the potential for significant, rapid growth with a high potential for risk to life and property.
Eberlien explains that by temporarily closing the forests, the Forest Service hopes to minimize the likelihood that visitors could become trapped in the forests during an emergency.
“The closure order will also decrease the potential for new fire starts at a time of extremely limited firefighting resources,” the Forest Service notes. “It also will enhance firefighter and community safety by limiting exposure that occurs in public evacuation situations, especially as COVID-19 continues to impact human health and strain hospital resources.”
News that the Forest Service is temporarily closing all national forests in California isn’t unexpected. Earlier this month, the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest division announced it was closing all nine national forests in Northern California from August 22 through September 6.
“Fires are running very quickly due to the drought conditions, dry fuels, and winds. This makes initial attack and containment very difficult and is even more challenging with strained resources who are battling more than 100 large fires across the country,” Eberlien said at the time. “We do not take this decision lightly and understand how this impacts people who enjoy recreating on the National Forests. These temporary closures are necessary to ensure public and firefighter safety, as well as reduce the potential for new fire starts.”
Earlier this summer, Sierra Pacific Industries and W.M. Beaty & Associates — two of California’s largest private forest companies — closed nearly 2 million acres of private timberlands to public access, The Sacramento Bee reports. That decision was made based on what the companies’ foresters called “unprecedented dry conditions.”
Know Before You Go
Keep in mind that there are serious repercussions for violating the Forest Service’s closure order. Fines for violating the closure order can be as much as $5,000.
It should be noted that the Forest Service’s closure only applies to national forests and not state parks or national parks, such as Redwood and Yosemite. However, if you do plan to visit state or national parks in California, be sure to check those parks’ websites for current conditions and possible warnings.