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Why Wildfires in California Are More Dangerous in Summer and Fall

Though fires increasingly erupt year-round in the Golden State, those in the summer and fall tend to be far more destructive.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

It’s almost July, which is typically the beginning of California’s fire season.

You’ve probably heard that wildfires in the Golden State have increasingly become a year-round danger, no longer limited to a few months a year. But even still, the start of the traditional summer-and-fall fire season brings a slew of heightened risks for us to contend with.

It’s true that drought conditions and extreme heat in California have increased the likelihood that fires break out in the winter. This year, in January, typically one of the state’s wettest periods, a wildfire swept through Big Sur — an event the National Weather Service called “surreal.”

But those off-season fires are generally low-intensity and less likely to exhibit the unpredictable and destructive behavior that has characterized the worst California fires in recent years. In 2020, more acres burned in the state than ever before, driven largely by massive fires that began in August and September.

“The ability for fires to burn straight through winter is probably increasing, but there’s still a very pronounced seasonality,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “I would bet a lot of money that August and September and October will see a whole lot more fire, and a whole lot more destructive fire.”

By the time summer arrives, California has typically gone months without rain, and warm weather has left vegetation bone-dry. So the fires that erupt then tend to burn hotter and faster — and are harder to control.

Seventeen of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California history occurred between July and October. The other three broke out in November or December, at the end of long dry periods that mimicked peak fire season conditions.

Summer and fall fires in recent years have destroyed thousands of homes, sterilized the soil, killed ancient trees and created what looks like a “nuclear apocalypse landscape,” Swain told me.

And, unfortunately, California is likely to endure similarly destructive fires through the remainder of this year, experts say.

The state is in the middle of a severe drought and is expected to experience above-normal heat this summer, conditions that have contributed to particularly severe fire seasons in recent history. The state’s two largest fires ever were in the past two years, the Dixie fire in 2021 and the August Complex fire in 2020.

Already, in Southern California, fuel moisture levels — or the amount of water in the vegetation — are where they should be at least four months later in the year, in terms of dryness, The Los Angeles Times reported. Officials in Northern California are making similarly treacherous forecasts.

For more:

California Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • Trout: Almost 350,000 rainbow trout will be euthanized as California wildlife officials battle bacteria outbreaks at two fish hatcheries in the eastern Sierra, The Associated Press reports.

  • Newsom maneuvers: Gov. Gavin Newsom is picking fights with Republicans — inviting more questions about his political aspirations.

  • Theranos trial: The fraud trial of Ramesh Balwani, the chief operating officer of the failed blood testing start-up Theranos and the ex-boyfriend of Elizabeth Holmes, is heading to a verdict soon.

  • Mental health court plan: A proposal by Newsom to place more homeless people into mental health treatment is making its way through the Legislature, The Associated Press reports.

  • Bill Cosby case: A jury on Tuesday found that Bill Cosby sexually assaulted Judy Huth in 1975. She was 16 when she accepted his invitation to join him at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.

  • Unemployment benefits: About $1.1 billion in unused unemployment benefits were returned to California on Tuesday, money state officials said was most likely related to attempted fraud during the pandemic, The Associated Press reports.

  • Enforcement: Social media companies would have to disclose their policies for removing problem content under a state legislative proposal, The Associated Press reports.


  • Cannabis ballot measures: Some California cannabis companies are going directly to voters to get around local officials. The epicenter for the effort is Manhattan Beach, CalMatters reports.

  • Stumped: In 2019, Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled a plan to plant 90,000 trees in Los Angeles by 2021. But that’s turned out to be far more difficult than expected, The Los Angeles Times reports.



  • Guaranteed income: Eighty households in Sacramento will receive $500 a month in an expansion of a guaranteed basic income program, The Sacramento Bee reports.

  • U.C. Berkeley professor tapped: Vanderbilt University named a U.C. Berkeley structural biologist as its new dean, The Associated Press reports.

Beatriz Da Costa for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Susie Theodorou.

Watermelon margaritas.

John Antczak/Associated Press

Today’s tip comes from Alan Bostick, who recommends a vista in central California near the Nevada border:

“Some 19 miles northwest of Bishop on U.S. Highway 395 is a roadside scenic vista that offers an incredible view of the two mountain ranges that define Owens Valley. In particular, the peaks along the eastern face of the Sierras are stunning.

Every so often I have been on a mountain and desert road trip that takes me this way, and each time I have to stop here and look. This vista point is just about my most favorite place in California, and that is saying a lot.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Summer is here. What’s your favorite part of the season in California?

Email us at with your stories, memories or recommendations.

This weekend, thousands of Californians are expected to descend on Santa Barbara for its annual solstice celebration.

The event, which includes live music and a parade, will be held downtown on Friday and Saturday. The theme of the 48th annual Santa Barbara Summer Solstice is “Shine.”

Read more about what’s planned for this year.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Largest continent (4 letters).

Briana Scalia and Isabella Grullón Paz contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at

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