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Lightning-sparked blazes may portend busy wildfire season in California

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Lightning-sparked blazes may portend busy wildfire season in California

An early start to the wildfire season has scorched large swaths of northern California but caused a relatively low amount of property loss so far given the size of the blazes.

SNL Image

A satellite image acquired Aug. 26 shows burn scars, marked in red, from the two largest wildfires sparked by a lightning siege in Northern California.
Source: NASA

Moody's in an Aug. 25 note said early estimates were that the fires inflicted $1.5 billion in insured losses based on the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's report of 1,800 structures destroyed at the time, but that total has since risen significantly. That said, the majority of the fires have been burning in remote regions away from populated areas.

Northern California has seen more than 900 new fires since Aug. 15, caused by a lightning siege that has produced in excess of 14,000 strikes. The fires have burned about 1.5 million acres, caused eight deaths and destroyed more than 3,400 structures, according to a Sept. 1 report from CAL FIRE.

Mark Sektnan, vice president of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, said wildfire season in California historically started around Labor Day. Now, however, it is year-round.

"We haven't even gotten to the Santa Ana and Diablo winds in the fall, which is when we typically get our most destructive fires," Sektnan said in an interview.

Wildfire season generally lasts through November or December, especially in the southern part of the state, said National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Kari Cobb. With more than 1 million acres already burning, this season is more active than usual.

"I wouldn't say it's unprecedented because there have been some really bad fire years in California, but it's certainly something we haven't seen in the past several years," Cobb said in an interview.

Two of the fires ignited by the lightning siege, the SCU Lightning Complex and the LNU Lightning Complex, have accounted for more than half of the newly burned acreage. A complex, according to the U.S. Forest Service, is two or more individual fires within the same area that are combined into a single incident or unified command.

The SCU complex, made up of multiple fires in Stanislaus, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties, has consumed at least 391,578 acres, the second-highest total in state history, and destroyed 53 structures since it started Aug. 18. Five injuries have been reported, but no fatalities. The fires were 72% contained as of Sept. 2.

The LNU complex, which began on Aug.17, is also in the record books as the third-largest ever in the Golden State at 375,209 acres. Those fires were 76% contained on Sept. 2 after causing seven deaths and 1,198 destroyed structures in parts of Sonoma, Lake, Napa, Yolo and Solano counties.

SNL Image

The Insurance Information Institute's Janet Ruiz and her husband were among 100,000 residents under evacuation orders because of the fires. She said they are back in their Lake County home and credits lessons learned from the 2018 Camp Fire, as well as the efforts of the 16,000 first responders battling the latest outbreak.

"The fire services are doing an amazing job with so many fires, keeping them away from populated areas as much as possible," Ruiz said in an interview. "They've done a lot of great work."

Ruiz said the fires of 2018, which caused $16 billion in insured losses, have made a difference in the way California and other fire-prone states approach the problem. She pointed to the recent budget that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed on June 26, which includes $85.6 million for additional firefighting resources during the peak fire season and $4.4 million general fund to help CAL FIRE implement its new wildfire prediction and modeling technology that would access a predictive software program that can perform simulations and generate wildfire forecasts.

Ruiz said California and other states are implementing more aggressive prevention plans, "rather than waiting for major fires and then having to try to put them out."