California wildfires: How did fires in California start?

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Wildfires have been raging in California for several weeks now, with tens of thousands forced to evacuate their homes. Around 367 fires are burning through the state as we speak, and grim images have emerged from the area, showing destroyed homes and wildlife desperately trying to flee the flames.

How did the California wildfires start?

Wildfires can start for a variety of reasons, but these particular fires amid intense heat and lightning strikes in the area.

With 2020 on track to be the hottest year on record, it is unsurprising that California experienced (and is at the tail-end of) a record-breaking heatwave.

Lightning is actually quite a rare cause of fires in the USA, but it has caused a fair number of the state’s largest.

In 2012, lightning ignited the Rush fire in Lassen County, burning more than 270,000 acres in California, and an additional 44,000 acres were burned in Nevada.

At this time of year the land in the sunshine state is extremely dry, and hotter temperatures are causing vegetation to get more dried out than ever.

Climate change is also linked to drier autumns in California and a delayed onset of autumn rains.

But wildfires can start for several different reasons aside from heatwaves and lightning.

Power lines

Electrical lines and related equipment can break in high winds and spark, igniting flames in tinder-dry vegetation that can spread quickly, particularly in high winds.

Last year, Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s electrical transmission lines sparked the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.

The Camp fire, which razed 90 percent of the town of Paradise, killed 86 people and destroyed more than 13,900 homes.

The lines malfunctioned on a dry hillside near a windy canyon.

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Sparks from vehicles or other equipment

A trailer with a flat tire that resulted in the wheel’s rim kicking up sparks caused one of California’s most destructive wildfires, the Carr fire in Shasta and Trinity counties, which destroyed more than 1,600 structures and killed eight people last year.

Another common way fires start is from lawnmowers or weed whackers striking rocks to create sparks.

Sparks from a metal grinder jumped into dry grass, triggering the Zaca fire in Santa Barbara County in 2007 — one of the largest in state history.


Arson is a particularly rare cause of wildfires, however it is not unheard of.

In 2006, Raymond Lee Oyler, an accused serial arsonist, used a combination of matches and cigarettes to start a fire at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains.

Five firefighters died fighting the blaze, and Mr Oyler was later sentenced to death in 2009.


Campfires are illegal across California, but unfortunately some people still light them despite the dangers.

An illegal campfire ignited by a deer hunter caused a wildfire that burned more than a quarter-million acres in mountainous forests near Yosemite in 2013.

The Oakland-Berkeley hills fire of 1991, which killed 25 people and destroyed more than 2,200 homes, blew out of control in swift winds.

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