For six months late last year, PBS science correspondent Miles O’Brien was in California for the filming of NOVA’s “Inside the Megafire,” airing Wednesday, May 8 at 9 p.m. on WGCU HD.
That fire took a worrisome trend to a new extreme, claiming scores of lives and more than a million acres of land. Since then, scientists have been investigating how forestry practices, climate change and drought may contribute to the rise of deadly megafires.
O’Brien was there at the breakout of the Camp fire, one of the three burning at the time. On PBS NewsHour last November, he told Judy Woodruff: “It was terrifying. It was horrifying. It was, frankly, mesmerizing.”
“Megafires are much more common than they have been,” O’Brien said, after consulting with experts in the field. “Just to give you an idea, the seven largest fires in California history have occurred since 2003.”
Fire meteorologist Craig Clements from San Jose State University listed the reasons why California unfortunately is the ideal environment for megafires: its terrain, the amount of fuel available and its weather systems. “We have the most ecosystems of any other place in the United States, and they all burn hot,” Clements said.
Experts also say that in the past four decades, the amount of forest that burns in the western United States in any given year has increased by 1,000 percent – or 10 times more forest having burned each year than in the 1970s or ’80s.
But the story goes back much further, about a century, to the beginning of the U.S. Forest Service. At that time the goal was very aggressive fire protection to keep the country from losing timber assets. But that didn’t take into consideration how much dry forest land that would leave vulnerable to wildfire, O’Brien explained.