Record-breaking California wildfires surpass 4 million acres

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Noah Berger

FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2020, file photo, a firefighter rubs his head while watching the LNU Lightning Complex fires spread through the Berryessa Estates neighborhood of unincorporated Napa County, Calif. Deadly wildfires in California have burned more than 4 million acres (6,250 square miles) this year more than double the previous record for the most land burned in a single year in the state. California fire officials said the state hit the astonishing milestone Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020 with about two months remaining in the fire season. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

SAN FRANCISCO – In a year that has already brought apocalyptic skies and smothering smoke to the West Coast, California set a grim new record Sunday when officials announced that the wildfires of 2020 have now scorched a record 4 million acres — in a fire season that is far from over.

The unprecedented figure — an area larger than the state of Connecticut — is more than double the previous record for the most land burned in a single year in California.

“The 4 million mark is unfathomable. It boggles the mind, and it takes your breath away,” said Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. “And that number will grow.”

So far, in this year’s historic fire season, more than 8,200 California wildfires have killed 31 people and scorched “well over 4 million acres in California” or 6,250 square miles, Cal Fire said Sunday in a statement. The blazes have destroyed more than 8,400 buildings.

The astonishing figure is more than double the 2018 record of 1.67 million burned acres (2,609 square miles) in California. All large fire years since Cal Fire started recording figures in 1933 have remained well below the 4 million mark — “until now," the agency said Sunday in a Tweet.

“This year is far from over and fire potential remains high. Please be cautious outdoors."

The enormity of the fires has meant that people living far from the flames experienced a degree of misery that in itself was unprecedented, with historically unhealthy air quality and smoke so dense that it blurred the skies across California and on some days even blotted out the sun. Last month, a relentless heat wave hit the state that helped fuel the fires and caused so much air pollution that it seeped indoors, prompting stores across California to sell out of air purifiers.

Numerous studies have linked bigger wildfires in America to climate change from the burning of coal, oil and gas. Scientists say climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable.