California’s August Complex Wildfires Are Officially Declared Modern History’s First-Ever “Gigafire”

What does this unnerving revelation mean for the future of our planet?


Photo by Patrick Campanale/Unsplash

Here is an image of the California wildfires burning in between Joshua Tree National Park and Los Angeles during this past summer of 2020.

One million acres. This is an amount of land five times greater than New York City. 

That is how large the August Complex Wildfire, which raged in California from August 18th through November 12th, 2020, when it was finally 100% contained. As of last month, experts officially declared the fire to have reached “gigafire” status – an occurrence that has not occurred in centuries. This alarming milestone is an eye-opening indication that drastic changes must be taken concerning the actions that we need to take against climate change. 

The August Complex Fires began on August 18th, 2020, after an extremely severe lightning storm ravaged Northern California, igniting countless wildfires throughout the region. Over the next four days, over 12,000 lightning strikes were reported, sparking more than 300 blazes, altogether burning through hundreds of thousands acres of land.

In the following weeks, 37 of these wildfires merged to create the largest wildfire in Californian history. Since then, it has burned through three national forests – the Mendocino, Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers – and released deadly amounts of smoke and ash, affecting the air quality of various surrounding areas including the San Francisco Bay Area, which, according to the LA Times, was reported to be in “an orange, toxic twilight” on September 9th due to the blotted sun and “apocalyptic skies” caused by the fumes. Not surprisingly, the August Complex Wildfire put Northwest California’s air quality in the “unhealthy to locally hazardous category”, thus posing a risk to innumerable residents. Luckily, however, authorities revealed that as of November 12th, 2020, the fire is now 100% contained, bringing the three-month-long calamity to a close. 

As relieving as this revelation is, the catastrophes do not end there. Rather, they are far from over. 2020 has been a record-breaking year for California’s wildfire season, as shown by the unprecedented and unparalleled amount of blazes the state has experienced over the past several months. These fires include the Creek fire — which has burned over 380,000 acres, destroyed over 850 buildings, and is as of now 78% contained — and the Sequoia (SQF) Complex fire, which has burned approximately 170,000 acres and is 100% contained. In fact, of the six largest fires recorded in the state’s history, five of them have occurred during this year alone;. The August Complex Wildfire is the largest of them.

Altogether, these fires have ravaged numerous counties and over 4 million acres of land throughout the summer — an amount double the previous annual record of 1.8 million acres, which was set in 2018. Moreover, they have resulted in as many as 31 deaths as well as more than 8,000 ruined buildings, structures, and infrastructure — not to mention the millions in danger of serious health consequences due to the air pollution settling over California’s most populated cities and regions. According to CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford, today’s wildfires are eight times as large as those of the 1970s, and the amount of land these blazes have burned through have increased by about 500%. 

Unfortunately, because of the extreme heatwave that California has experienced this summer, experts predict that this year’s wildfire season will not be deescalating anytime soon. According to climate scientists and California authorities, the severity of this year’s fire season can be attributed to the climate crisis, which is causing hotter, drier conditions that feed and sustain larger wildfires. Rapidly rising global temperatures, fueled by an increase in carbon emissions, is the main reason behind these increasingly destructive and turbulent blazes. Not only did California experience its hottest August on record this year, but at least six more of the state’s temperature records were broken in September 2020. These temperatures have resulted in alarmingly bone-dry vegetation and soils, hence the prolonged droughts. In fact, of the past twenty-one years, fourteen have had below-average rainfall rates in California. 

In addition to increasing the severity of these fires, the arid conditions caused by climate change has also lengthened the state’s wildfire season. Scott Stephens, a fire science professor at UC Berkeley, spoke with a reporter from the LA Times, and said, “climate change is predisposing the fuels into drier conditions. We know the fire season length is also increasing…so it’s absolutely right that climate change is making this more challenging.” Lynnette Round, a spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), similarly told a reporter at Vox, “What you can say is that our fire seasons here in California have on average expanded by 75 days…Our summers are longer, which means that conditions are hotter, they’re drier, and that makes us more susceptible to wildfires.”

In fact, a study recently published in the journal Environmental Research Letters reports that climate change was increasing the likelihood of extreme autumn wildfire conditions in California. In the article, coauthor Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, writes, “We found that climate change has already more than doubled the frequency of extreme autumn wildfire conditions in California over the past 40 years.” Swain also states that, “this observed increase in weather-driven autumn wildfire risk coincides with a strong and robust warming trend…and a modest negative precipitation trend…over the 1979–2018 period,” and that “a key consequence of climate change-driven aridification is that vegetation throughout the state is becoming increasingly flammable, setting the stage for extreme burning conditions given an ignition source and otherwise conducive weather conditions. Climate change can thus be viewed as a wildfire ‘threat multiplier’ amplifying natural and human risk factors that are already prevalent throughout California.”

However, Swain emphasizes that climate change is only one of the many factors leading to the increasing intensity of these blazes. “Nearly 88% of fires and 92% of burned area from autumn wildfires in California are human-caused, highlighting human ignition sources as key contributors,” he writes. Similarly, reporter Umair Irfan writes in his Vox article, entitled ‘California’s largest wildfire on record is now a million-acre ‘gigafire,’ that “Typically, the vast majority of wildfires are ignited by human sources, like power lines, camp fires, heavy machinery, and arson.” Both Swain and Irfan attribute human development in the wildland-urban interface as another one of the causes behind the fires, stating that it increases the risk of a fire starting as well as the total damage that occurs due to the blazes. 

Needless to say, this revelation poses serious implications, particularly in regards to the devastating impact of climate change and human activity on our planet. “I think this announcement just solidifies how severe the problem is and how we need bold action at every level,” says avid climate justice activist, Green Team faculty advisor, and Bronx Science Physics teacher Ms. Rachel Wax. “Climate change does not affect people equally; it disproportionately affects historically marginalized or underserved communities. This is a justice issue. The problem is staring at us in the face, and yet many people with power are looking away,” Wax said.

Indeed, the occurrence of California’s first ever million-acre wildfire ought to be seen as a call to action, urging us to get involved in the climate change and climate justice movements. So, what can we do? “Students can stay informed and plug into advocacy and activist groups in New York City. There are so many great ones,” said Ms. Wax. Another way is to speak up, to raise awareness and instigate more discussions about this topic. “Talking about climate change is  essential to fighting climate change. Bring it up often, and ensure that everyone in your sphere is just as aware as you,” said Ms. Wax.

Ms. Rachel Wax, a Bronx Science Physics teacher, emphasizes the importance of working together in tackling climate change and achieving long-term sustainable development. “We all need to be involved, and more importantly, we need to ensure that justice is always at the center of the work,” Wax said. (Rachel Wax)

The fight against climate change is bound to be long and difficult. Thus, it is crucial that we work together to make significant strides in this movement. Whether it is done through saving energy or eating fewer meat and dairy products, avoiding plastic, or bicycling to work (instead of riding in cars or public transportation), recycling clothes or planting trees, each and every action that we take — even the smallest ones — count. Although we cannot reverse what has already happened, it is never too late to make a sustainable change that will help to preserve and protect our environment for our generation and for future generations. After all, the Earth is our home and the only one that we have — it is our obligation to take care of it. 



“Climate change does not affect people equally; it disproportionately affects historically marginalized or underserved communities. This is a justice issue. The problem is staring at us in the face, and yet many people with power are looking away,” said avid climate justice activist, Green Team faculty advisor, and Bronx Science physics teacher, Ms. Rachel Wax.