Rebuilding from the Ashes: The Story of the 2020 California Wildfires

Rebuilding from the Ashes: The Story of the 2020 California Wildfires

The year 2020 is one that most people would like to erase from their memories. Not only was the planet under the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, but 2020 was also the year that saw record-breaking wildfires in California. Record-breaking is probably the wrong word to use because it suggests something positive, but the 2020 Californian wildfires were anything but positive; they were devastating to the state’s wildlife.

Wildfires are common in the Western United States, and the country is usually well-prepared for the wildfire season. However, nothing could have prepared anyone for what lay in store during 2020, the largest wildfire season recorded in California’s modern history. A staggering 4.4 million acres of land were affected, representing more than 4% of the state. The economic impact cost over $12 billion, but the environmental cost was far more severe.

Californian wildfires typically disrupt everyday life, but they tend to be manageable. The 2020 wildfires were off the scale. They halted the practice of the Los Angeles Rams, a team popular with sports betting California, and NBA and college games were postponed due to fears regarding air quality. Such “first world problems” pale into insignificance when you consider that by the time the final fire was contained, the fires had destroyed over 10,000 structures, cost over $12 billion, and 33 people lost their lives. Figures remain hazy about the loss of animal life because the state has never seen devastation on such a scale before.

What Caused the 2020 Californian Wildfires?

A combination of poor forest management, higher temperatures resulting from climate change, increased lightning strikes, and even arson have been cited as causes of the 2020 Californian wildfires.

January and February were unusually dry, leading to fears that the 2020 fire season could be much longer and severe than other years. California Governor Gavin Newsome declared a state of emergency on March 22 after a mass die-off of trees increased the risk of wildfires. The rains came in March and April, reducing the risk but lulling everyone into a false sense of security.

The first fire that spread at least 1,000 acres was recorded on May 5. By the end of 2020, some 9,917 fires had burned. Many started due to lightning strikes igniting overly dry forestation, while others were the direct result of the fires spreading to nearby land and vegetation.

Areas Affected

Rebuilding from the Ashes: The Story of the 2020 California Wildfires
Rebuilding from the Ashes: The Story of the 2020 California Wildfires

The wildfires spared no corner of California. From the dense forests of the Sierra Nevada to the suburbs of Los Angeles, communities found themselves in the path of deadly fires. Nowhere and nobody was ever truly safe from the raging infernos; fire does not discriminate.

In terms of acres affected, the August Complex group of fires were by far the most damaging. The August Complex fires started burning on August 16. Initially, there were 38 separate fires across Glenn County, Mendocino County, Lake County, Tehama County, Trinity County, and Shasta County, but they eventually merged, creating the largest recorded wildfire in Californian history. Almost a thousand structures perished, one firefighter died, and another two were injured as the August Complex obliterated over 1 million acres of land. The fire raged until November 12, when it was finally contained.

The Environmental Impact of the Wildfires

The repercussions of the 2020 Californian wildfires were staggering. Once-vibrant forests were reduced to a bleak landscape of blackened trunks and scorched earth, which would not look out of place in an apocalyptic Hollywood movie, except the scenes of devastation were very real. Fires ripped through delicate ecosystems, leaving behind a trail of destruction that will take years, possibly decades, to recover from fully.

Air quality plummeted as thick plumes of smoke choked the skies. In some areas, between 75% and 100% of vegetation on the forest floor was lost to the fires. Over 600 species of animals were adversely affected in the Sierra Nevada region alone, and that does not take into account insects that are a food source for many of those species.

The cost to the environment is still being calculated four years later, and we will likely never know the actual number of animals lost to the fires.

Recovery and Restoration

Even today, four years after the 2020 wildfires, Californians are recovering and attempting to restore life to the state. Mother Nature has a fascinating way of recovering and rebuilding, but she is receiving a helping hand.

Massive reforestation projects continue planting saplings, hoping to restore lush forests that once blanketed the state and reestablish ecosystems for the potentially millions of mammals, birds, invertebrates, and other fauna that were killed or displaced during the wildfires.

The recovery process involves planting trees on a monumental scale, restoring wetlands, and rehabilitating rivers and streams. It is a mammoth task but crucial to the environment’s needs.


The 2020 Californian wildfires will forever be remembered for their destructive power and widespread devastation. Thirty-three people lost their lives to this natural disaster; even losing one human life is one too many. Although the loss of buildings and structures is demoralizing and financially damaging, such things can be rebuilt and restored. Sadly, the same can not always be said of the environment and delicate ecosystems.

Trees that were hundreds or even thousands of years old were reduced to charred stumps, never to bloom again. An unknown but likely unfathomable number of animals and insects either perished in the flames, were displaced, or have died as a result of losing their homes and habitats; some may never return to California.

Wildfires will always happen, as they have since the beginning of time, but hopefully, they will never happen on a scale as large as those in California in 2020. The fires should have served as a wake-up call for the Californian government and its citizens, showing what can and will happen if we continue neglecting our planet and climate change continues accelerating. Only time will tell if we have learned from our mistakes.

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