The third-largest wildfire on record, which burned north of Bakersfield, California, has been burning for 4,000 years, say scientists.
The Lassen Volcanic National Park blaze, called the Carr Fire, has engulfed 140,000 acres, up from the previous record of 138,000 in 2003. Despite being 1.1 million years old, the Bakersfield Fire is 4,000 years younger than its closely related one near Yellowstone National Park.
“For this fire to have been burning the entire time the formation of the Mecassins, a mountain range on the Cascade mountains, would have been just totally astonishing,” said John Lucas, assistant professor of geology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The Bakersfield fire was started in July, when a vehicle ran over a dry brush spark, leading to intense flames. The cause of the fire has yet to be determined. However, because of its age, the Lassen Volcanic National Park blaze was driven by fire’s natural cycle. “It’s why fires are so catastrophic in our area,” said Lucas.
Like the Lassen volcano blaze, the Bakersfield fire follows the same seasonal cycle of fierce wildfires, with onset dates that are roughly 30-60 years apart. According to research, the vast majority of the fires happening today are the result of natural processes and do not have any anthropogenic, or man-made, causes. “The most fundamental question is, do they have any legacy in our time?” said Lucas.
“We’re clearly getting blazes that much younger.” While there is no evidence of human interference, in the period 6,000 to 17,000 years ago, humans began wearing flammable wigs and flammable plates — quickly introducing wood-burning technology to the area.
“This means that when you start wearing wigs and eat spears, lots of new things would be going on in the environment,” said Lucas. This may explain a previously unknown condition, which in humans involves inducing autoimmune disease. “If you put on a wig and wear a mineral hunting spear, you could potentially introduce the immune system to things it doesn’t like,” said Lucas.
Writing in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Lucas said that time and conditions in the environment are significantly more important in the cause of a wildfire than the age of the fire.
Over the past 80 years, fires have burned across much of the West, and many believe man-made global warming and drought have aggravated the smoke and fire damage. “Is climate the biggest factor in fire?” asked Lucas.
“No, it’s an accumulation of these natural factors over time.”