Add the Prospect of ‘Gigafires’ to Your List of 2020 Horrors

Add the Prospect of ‘Gigafires’ to Your List of 2020 Horrors
A wildfire burns over grape vines. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

On top of the global pandemic, good chunks of the U.S. are spending the last bits of their summer dealing with one of the most brutal wildfire seasons to date. So brutal, in fact, experts turning to new words to describe just how unprecedented this year’s California firestorm is.

The word of the day in this case is “gigafire,” which describes a blaze that burns through 400,000 hectares (or more) of land in a single go. It’s also a word that could soon describe what’s happening in California: Since Monday (Monday!), more than 550 wildfires have ripped through 312,000 hectares. That’s a Rhode Island-sized charred chunk of land, a much less delightful reference to the state than what we saw at the Democratic National Convention this week.

Two of the fires contributing to the blaze — the LNU and SCU Lightning Complexes — have each burned through more than 80,000 hectares on their own, putting them both among them among the 10 biggest wildfires that the state’s ever experienced.

California is dealing with a firefighter shortage, making it extremely hard to get a handle on the monster fires, let alone the hundreds of others across the state. If the two biggest fires keep ramping up at this rate, they could reach gigafire territory. Combining all the fires together and the state is almost certain to see 40,000 hectares burned in this round of fires, which come months before the worst of fire season generally hits.

Back in 2018, lightning caused a wildfire to break out across Western Australia that quickly chewed through more than 809,000 hectares of land in under a month, marking a recent gigafire. The burns were bad enough that the land was left with a scar that could be seen from NASA satellites.

We know that the climate crisis is one of the central culprits behind blazes like these, with hot weather making large fires more common and lengthening wildfire season. This summer’s California fire explosion is in line with scenes that have played out in recent years there and across the globe, including Australia’s wildly destructive fire season over austral summer. These types of fires likely to keep getting worse as the planet heats up. As much as I hate to say it, there’s a chance this might not be the last word we’ll need to add to our vocabulary to describe them.