It could have been another bad wildfire year in California. A bountiful summer crop of quick-to-burn dead grass carpeted the hillsides. Autumn was warm and dry. A record-breaking stretch of fire weather hit the Bay Area in October.
But it wasn’t. California wildfires charred about 270,000 acres in 2019, the smallest number since 2011. The three fatalities and roughly 735 burned structures were a fraction of the catastrophic losses of the previous two fire seasons.
The lower than expected toll followed an unusually wet spring and big snowpack, which slowed the start of the fire season. The installation of backcountry fire cameras gave firefighting crews early notice of ignitions. When flames approached, evacuation orders were swift and sweeping.
But most critically, widespread preventive power shutdowns by the state’s largest electric utility diminished the chances of human-related ignitions at critical times — during high, hot winds that can fan a single spark into the kind of unstoppable inferno that destroyed the town of Paradise, Calif., and left 86 people dead in the 2018 Camp fire.
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