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A firefighter holding what looks like a rake stands amid burning embers and trees.
A firefighter works the scene as flames push towards homes during the Creek fire in the Cascadel Woods area of unincorporated Madera County, California on September 7, 2020.
(JOSH EDELSON
/
AFP via Getty Images)
Climate and Environment
LA Explained: Wildfires Are Getting Worse. What You Need to Know
California’s wildfires have gotten increasingly destructive and deadly. Here's why, and what you can do to get your home and family ready for a fire emergency.
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Over the past 10 years, Californians have suffered through some of the most destructive and deadly wildfires in the state’s recorded history. The problem is only expected to get worse.

It’s exhausting dealing with this seemingly constant existential threat. You may not have much influence over how a fire starts and spreads, but you can get ready in case of emergency.

What do you want to know about fires, earthquakes, climate change or any science-related topics?
Jacob Margolis helps Southern Californians understand the science shaping our imperfect paradise and gets us prepared for what’s next.

That’s what this guide is for — a bit of insight into why things have gotten so bad and a whole lot of practical advice that’ll help you and your family prepare. And if you have any questions I don't tackle here, ask me and I’ll do my best to dig in and add them to this page. (You'll have another chance to ask at the end, once you've read the whole explainer.)

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Why Have Wildfires Gotten So Bad?

Fire is a natural part of California’s landscape, but there are a whole host of reasons why they’ve gotten so bad in recent years.

Long term fire suppression: We’ve been so good at putting out fires over the past century that it’s led to a huge buildup of fuels, especially in our forested areas. So when a fire comes along, there’s a lot more stuff to burn, leading to larger and more intense fires. If we’d regularly allowed and incorporated low intensity burning, as had been practiced by native peoples throughout the state, we’d likely be in a much better place.

Firefighters in a field of tall grass look down on a fire and smoke.
Marin County Fire Department firefighters participate in a controlled burn training on June 19, 2019 in San Rafael, California.
(Justin Sullivan
/
Getty Images)

Climate change: Temperatures have gotten hotter and our landscapes have gotten drier, which makes them more susceptible to burning throughout more of the year. On top of that, extreme drought, of which climate change is a contributing factor, leads to plant stress and massive tree die off. Those dead trees become added fuel for fires.

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Invasive species: Take a trip through a recently burned area of the Santa Monica mountains and you’ll see moonscapes dotted with invasive grasses. They pop up a year or two after a fire burns through, displacing native plants and reducing the amount of time between big fires. Out in the desert, the grasses fill in the space between native plants, carrying fire long distances and enabling big burns that are otherwise uncharacteristic of the area. That’s what happened in Joshua Tree in 2020.

Wildland Urban Interface: As we’ve developed more of California, we’ve pushed communities deeper into high fire hazard zones, which means more humans are living in areas that naturally burn. More people in those spots means an increased possibility of ignitions, and more properties and lives in the way of flames when the landscapes do catch on fire.

Do I Have To Worry About Wildfires Year Round?

“It’s always fire season,” is an oft-repeated sentiment, but it really depends on how much precipitation we get in any given year.

When there are drought conditions in Southern California — which we seem to now experience quite often — then yes, plants are likely dry enough to burn throughout much of the year. Increasingly intense heat also dries out landscapes faster.

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Case in point: a wildfire on Mount Baldy in the winter of 2021 during a drought.

That said, if we have an exceptionally rainy year, we usually don’t have to worry about wildfires until June or July, because that’s when grasses dry out enough to catch on fire. It’s not until August or September that larger vegetation, which fuels the larger fires, starts to get crispy.

From there until the rainy season we’ve just got to hold on to our hats and respirators, because that’s when the Santa Ana winds show up. They’re the primary driving force behind our largest and most deadly wildfires. 70 mph wind gusts can make conflagrations all but unstoppable.

Some fires, like Woolsey, don’t stop burning until they hit the ocean.

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In the foreground, bare burned hills. In the background, Tows of untouched townhomes and the ocean.
The ruins of a ocean view home are seen in the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire, in Malibu, California on November 14, 2018.
(DAVID MCNEW
/
AFP via Getty Images)

The rainy season should come along in November, but it seems to be starting later each year — yet another implication of climate change. And sometimes it doesn’t come along at all, which means that wildfires can burn well into the winter, if not straight through to next summer and fall.

How To Read A Fire Like A Pro

Unless you're on the ground with firefighters, talking to the folks making the plans about how to tackle a blaze, it can be tough to tell just how worried you should be about a particular fire.

Here are some of the things that I ask myself when trying to figure out whether I need to toss my respirator and fire gear into my go-bag and head out into the field to cover a growing fire.

  • How fast is the fire spreading?
    • If we're seeing frequent, big jumps in acreage burned, there's a good chance that the fire's starting to burn out of control.
  • How many acres are the fire agencies saying may burn?
    • If you start to see 1,000, 15,000, 20,000 acres possible, it's going to be a big fire.
  • How dry is the vegetation?
    • If the vegetation is at critical levels of dryness, then it's going to burn as if it's dead. If it's still wet from winter rains, then the fire will be more easy to control.
  • How hot is the weather?
    • Hot weather means drier vegetation and greater stress on firefighters. Drier vegetation burns more easily and tired firefighters are less effective.
  • How strong are the winds and how long is the wind event?
    • If it's Santa Ana wind season and you're seeing estimated wind speeds above 20 to 30 mph, there's a good chance the fire could move too fast for firefighters to control. You'll also start to see spotting a mile or more ahead of the fire front. That's when embers are pushed far and wide by strong winds and start fires outside of the main fire zone. If a wind event is expected to continue for a week, expect the fire to burn through that week. It'll be tough for firefighters to tackle it until winds die down or the fire burns through whatever matter is in its way.
  • Is the fire burning through an area that hasn't burned in at least 10 years?
    • The longer it's been since an area has burned, the greater the amount of fuel there is to burn.

  • Is the fire burning in a mountainous area?
    • Odds are good it will be, as our mountains are what regularly burn. We've got steep mountains here in Southern California, and a whole lot of technical terrain that's all but impossible to navigate on foot. If the fire's burning in a spot that's tough to access, it's going to be harder for firefighters to lay down containment lines. They'll have to let the fire burn up to ridges and fire roads, which they should have access to.
  • Are evacuation orders being issued?
    • If you're told to evacuate, do so. It's not a joke. If they're being issued, it's serious.
  • Have local firefighters brought in outside resources? If so, how many?
    • California's got mutual aid agreements with other firefighting agencies across the country. If you start to see that they're bringing in a large number of crews from outside the state to tackle a fire, know that they're having a trouble getting a hold of it.

How Do I Know If My Home Is At Risk?

The easiest way to find out is by looking at this map from Cal Fire to see if your property is located in a high fire hazard severity zone (HFHSZ) If it is, know that you’re at an increased risk of getting hit by aggressive and fast moving wildfires.

A map of the L.A. areas shows most of the region in light red with pockets of deeper red in largely hilly or mountainous areas.
A screenshot of Cal Fire’s fire hazard severity zone map. The red areas are very high risk.
(Cal Fire)

In that same vein, if you’re located in a HFHSZ you may have to adhere to regulations that dictate how you maintain your landscape to make it less fire friendly. Information for L.A. County residents can be found here.

If you’re considering buying a home in California, know that it’s the law that fire risk needs to be disclosed. And if you’re located in an HFHSZ even more disclosure rules apply.

To find out how your community is responding and adapting to their growing wildfire risk, NPR’s Lauren Sommer recommends looking into your local “fire safe council, fire adapted community or Firewise community.”

How Do I Protect My Property And Home From Fire?

There are two key areas on your property that you’ll need to prepare for wildfires: the land around your home and the home itself.

You should think of the land around your home as defensible space. A landscape that you need to modify to be as fire resistant as possible. That, if you prepare it right, will act as a buffer that keeps flames and embers far away from your structure, and gives firefighters the room to defend it, if need be.

In order to prepare your land you’ll want to clear any firewood, dry plants and trees from right up against your house. You’ll also want to replace decks and railing with non-combustible materials, and use fire proof materials like gravel in your walkway.

You’ll want to keep your yard clear of piles of leaves and tall, dry grass. And you need to make sure that there’s proper spacing between shrubs and trees, so that if one catches on fire it minimizes the likelihood that another will as well.

You should also practice something called home hardening, which is all about preparing the actual structure so that it can fend off not only flames, but embers as well. They arrive far ahead of the fire front and can squeeze into all sorts of small crawl spaces and set your structure ablaze.

There are simple steps you can take like clearing your rain gutters of any dry leaves and sealing off crawl spaces, or more complicated ones like installing fire resistant roofing material.

In case you're looking for yet another incentive to prepare your home, just know that if firefighters arrive at your home to defend it, but you haven’t taken the time to either harden it or create defensible space, there’s a good chance they’ll just move on to a structure that’s been better prepared.

What About Fire Insurance?

If you can afford it — and it’s available in your fire-prone area — you should probably get it, as federal recovery programs aren’t going to make you whole if you suffer catastrophic losses.

That said, the insurance market’s a mess right now. Wildfire coverage is quite expensive, rates are increasing, and the state’s had to step in multiple times to stop insurers from dropping or discontinuing coverage.

Know that even if you have it, you may be fighting with your insurance company for years over money. Prepare to go to battle by documenting your items ahead of time.

Renters and homeowners insurance may cover related damages and losses, but check with your plan provider.

Sign Up For Wildfire Alerts. Now.

A big part of properly preparing for disasters is knowing how you’ll get your information when everything goes down.

When it comes to wildfires, that means signing up for alerts from local, state, and federal agencies, who can tell you need-to-know information about evacuation orders or anything else that may be critical to saving your life. They’re especially important during red flag events, because officials may use the alerts to wake you up in the middle of the night to tell you it’s time to leave.

Sign up for all of these. If you don’t live in LA, look to see if your city has its own emergency alert system.

This should be the main way that evacuation orders and other critical information is communicated by officials. That said, they often turn to Twitter to post more frequent updates, so as not to spam people's phones with loud alerts.

Make sure to follow the Twitter accounts of your local fire department, sheriff’s department, and city government:

Of course, suggesting you use Twitter during a disaster is contingent on there being both power and internet available. If power is out and you need emergency information, we’ll provide regular updates over the air on KPCC at 89.3 FM. You should always have a hand crank and/or battery powered radio around in case of emergencies.

Emergency Supplies and Evacuation Plans

It’s 1 a.m. and you’re sound asleep, when all of the sudden you're torn from your slumber by a deafening alert coming from your cell phone.

It’s the L.A. County Fire Dept. A fast moving wildfire, pushed by Santa Ana winds, is charging through your neighborhood and you need to evacuate. Now.

What are you going to throw into your car in the next five minutes? What routes are you going to take to get out of there?

If you live in a high fire hazard severity zone and it’s a red flag night, it’s a very real scenario you should be thinking about.

The good news is that you have time to prepare.

A man carries a white plastic hamper to the trunk of his car on a street where a deep orange smoke is everywhere.
Residents evacuate their homes in the Tuscany development as smoke from the approaching Porter Ranch fire fills the air on October 13, 2008 near the Los Angeles area community of Porter Ranch, California.
(David McNew
/
Getty Images)

Evacuation plans: Talk to your friends and family, adults and kids about establishing a wildfire action plan. Figure out how you might escape your neighborhood, which neighbors or family members may need help leaving, and how you can all make sure that everyone’s looked after. Don’t rely on emergency responders to save you.

Large animals: Large animal shelters often open up during wildfires in Southern California. Information will likely be posted on your local Red Cross Twitter account, or by your local sheriffs department.

Emergency supplies: Think about what you’ll need to prepare, whether you have to hunker down at home or if you have to flee at a moment's notice, particularly if there’s a red flag warning.

You could go full-on prepper, but guns are unnecessary. You’ll want water and food, as well as comfortable clothes you can take to a shelter or hotel while you’re displaced. Any important documents you have should be stored digitally if possible. And don’t forget to think about what your pet might need to survive too.

Consider a generator or a battery bank to provide you with some security when you’re at home and the power gets shut off.

If you have medicines or other critical items that need to be refrigerated, consider how you’ll keep them cool. In that case you may consider purchasing a small battery backup for a small refrigerator.

Access And Functional Needs?

When it comes to preparing for disasters, there are extra considerations for the one in four adults in the U.S. that live with access and functional needs. Know that California is woefully unprepared to take care of you, and that you'll have to line up help ahead of time if possible.

You may have equipment that has to run on electricity, or medicines that need to be refrigerated, or you may have difficulty evacuating without assistance.

All of this needs to be considered ahead of time and planned for.

If you have a family member or neighbor who may need help evacuating, have a discussion ahead of time. Figure out a plan to make sure that everyone is taken care of. Odds are emergency services aren’t going to help. It’ll likely be those nearest to you that do.

Don't Let Wildfire Smoke Inside

Try your best not to inhale toxic wildfire smoke, as it can lead to all sorts of adverse health impacts, including heart attacks, strokes, and exacerbation of asthma and COPD. Consider buying air filters and respirators before there’s a run on them during a major fire. And think about setting up a clean room of sorts, where you know you can run purifiers and stay safe.

Realize that you may have to clean up your home after smoke has cleared, as toxic particles can settle into your clothing, carpets and furniture.

There’s A Wildfire Nearby. Now What?


  • Stay out of the area where it’s burning
  • Close up your home to try and prevent smoke from getting in
  • Check up on those resources we mentioned above to see how things are going.
A neighborhood where heavy smoke and flames are heading over the ridge line has cars in driveways and one open garage.
Flames come close to houses during the Blue Ridge Fire on October 27, 2020 in Chino Hills, California.
(David McNew
/
Getty Images)

If you’re in the path of the fire, get ready to evacuate in case orders are issued, or if you feel unsafe. They should come in through the notification systems we mentioned. However cell service might be out in your area, so you may have to make the decision yourself.

Remember to check your evacuation plan checklist and emergency supplies. Follow your previously established wildfire action plan, and start to make contact with family, friends, and neighbors if necessary.

Don't feel silly for preparing! Things can change at a moment's notice.

If you have to evacuate quickly, remember Cal Fire’s six P’s checklist:

  • People and pets
  • Papers, phone numbers, and important documents
  • Prescriptions, vitamins, and eyeglasses
  • Pictures and irreplaceable memorabilia
  • Personal computer hard drive and disks
  • “Plastic” (credit cards, ATM cards) and cash

Look for hotels and motels open nearby so that you can find a safe place to stay.

Red Cross shelters should open fairly quickly. Here’s where you can find them.

If You're Trapped By A Fast Moving Wildfire

Even though it may seem unlikely to happen, people get caught by fast-moving, wind-driven wildfires, something we saw in both the Tubbs and Camp Fires. That’s why it’s important to figure out your evacuation routes in advance.

If those routes are blocked off and you can’t get out, hopefully you’ve hardened your home, which can serve as a very effective fire shelter.

If you’re in your car or on foot, finding a place away from flames or brush is crucial.

Cal Fire has clear recommendations as to what you should do.

One caveat is that the odds of you getting through to 911 in the middle of an emergency, or firefighters being able to get to you to help while you’re surrounded by flames, isn’t great, especially if it’s a large fast moving fire.

That’s why prep and leaving early if possible is crucial.

Returning Home After The Fire

Recovery could take an awfully long time, depending on how badly hit your community was. Your local sheriffs department should let you know when you can go back.

If you’ve lost your home, hopefully you’ve already itemized everything, so that you can get to work with your insurance adjuster right away.

Federal help may be available, but only if your fire receives a disaster declaration. If not, the only assistance available besides your insurance may be a small business association loan. Your county should set up some sort of emergency response site post-fire for you to head to to gather information.

If you have to rebuild, beware of scams.

There are fewer sources to help you recover than you’d think.

When Rain Comes, Worry About Mudslides

When rains finally do arrive, if you live in a hilly area there’s a good chance that you could get hit with some post fire debris flows. The USGS has a map detailing places of concern, which you can find here.

Ask A Question

What do you want to know about fires, earthquakes, climate change or any science-related topics?
Jacob Margolis helps Southern Californians understand the science shaping our imperfect paradise and gets us prepared for what’s next.