"The fear is palpable," Loew said. "When I drive home through my neighborhood, I see tinderboxes everywhere."
According to data from the National Catastrophe Service, wildfires over the past decade have resulted in more than
"We shouldn't be surprised that we're seeing not only our cities growing, but lots of people taking over what had been rural landscapes and making them an urban environment," said
This summer, the
"My mind was on overload. I have to pack this, I have to pack that. ... Plus you have to pack your personal stuff," said
Among her most important possessions: three figurines of angels embracing firefighters. Spencer has six firefighters in her family. Three of them — her son, husband and nephew — spent more than a week battling the
Last year, according to the
Over the past three decades, the number of wildfires declared major disasters by the
The cost of wildfire recovery often falls to individual states. To get federal dollars flowing, the governor has to request a disaster declaration and
But while the number of wildfire disaster declarations has grown in the past two decades, only 16.2% of wildfires larger than 100,000 acres have been declared major disasters, which is about 0.002% of all wildfires in the past 20 years.
"Being human means there's risk of some sort in your life," Loew said. "If you're looking for a quiet mountain town with a good community, a good school and great people, this is the place to be. ... I don't know why people wouldn't want to live here."
According to the
The report shows over 39 million people across the country live in forested communities like
The more than 41,000 burned structures in
"Fueled by drought, an unprecedented buildup of dry vegetation and extreme winds, the size and intensity of these wildfires caused the loss of more than 100 lives, destroyed thousands of homes and exposed millions of urban and rural Californians to unhealthy air," according to a February report by the
More than 25 million acres of
Research by the
To prevent larger wildfires,
In a low-income community like
"Every slash pile being burned has the potential of getting away," said
Wood, a dentist by trade, volunteered with local authorities to use dental records to identify victims in Paradise. Less than a month later, he proposed Bill AB38, which would establish a
"The legislative process is not perfect," Wood said. "But the commitment I have to trying to find a funding source ... to help people protect their homes isn't going away."
In 2010, 40 million people in the country lived in forested communities, approximately 1-in-10 Americans. But despite the risk of wildfires, building projects continue to be approved in areas still recovering from previous blazes.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
Twist, of the
"There is a lot of correlation between warfare between humans and warfare between humans and the environment," he said. "When the fire comes ... it's chaotic for the first several hours until people settle in. It's the same in a firefight."
To control the chaos, Twist has been pushing to install SR-7 wildfire early-detection systems, which use infrared and optical cameras to detect growing wildfires.
In June, residents of
"We want people to be ready to go. If it's moving towards them, when we say go, we want them to grab their bags and get out of there,"
Spencer spent five days working on her brother's yard waiting for the threat to be extinguished and the evacuation lifted. She was among the first to re-enter
"In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, Amen. Thank you, Lord, for protecting us, for protecting our homes. Thank you, Lord, for protecting our firefighters; without them our homes would not be safe," Spencer said. "There are just no words, but thank God we are home. There's no place like home. Amen."
As she prayed, Spencer's eldest son and nephew were still on the fire line.
Now, as the assistant fire management officer — or "burn boss" — for the
"I came to the realization one day that firefighting is the problem. I wanted to become part of the solution, and so I got into prescribed fire," Rubalcaba said. "Prescribed fire is the big thing now because it's the only solution to this catastrophic event we're having annually with fire."
For the first time since the 1920s, data from the
In the same time span, wildfire damages have increased fivefold with more than
Last year, President
To better respond to wildfires, firefighting agencies divided the
According to the annual wildland fire summary and statistics report, for the past two decades the Southern region is one of only two regions that has had more land burned by prescribed fires than by wildfires. In 2018, four of the five states with the most wildfires were in the Southern region:
Research published this year by
"Fire is a driverless car," Pyne said. "It's barreling down the road integrating everything around it and at some point, it may be a really sharp curve called climate change. Another point it may be a really tricky intersection called wildland urban interface. It may just be filled with road hazards leftover from logging or past fires.
"There is no fix to the fire problem. ... We have to live with it."
About this project: This report is part of "State of Emergency," a project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the