The many ways climate change worsens California wildfires

Now designated as California’s deadliest fire, the still-raging Camp Fire by November 13 had led to 42 deaths, with many residents still unaccounted for and more than 7,000 structures destroyed. (Image credit: NASA)

California has been ravaged by record wildfires in recent years. 2017 was the state’s costliest and most destructive fire season on record. The Mendocino wildfire in July 2018 was California’s largest-ever by a whopping 60 percent.

Even though California’s wildfire season has traditionally ended in October, the Camp Fire raging in November 2018 is the state’s most destructive on record.

The data tell the story: Six of California’s ten most destructive wildfires on record have now struck in just the past three years.

President Trump’s tweets suggesting forest mismanagement is to blame for California’s wildfire woes, and threatening to withhold federal funding, have prompted widespread rebukes for their insensitivity as thousands of citizens flee the fires – some, tragically, unsuccessfully – and as an affront to thousands of weary firefighters.

The reality is that about 57 percent of the state’s forests are owned and managed by the federal government, and another 40 percent by families, companies, and Native American tribes. Forest management does play some role in creating wildfire fuel, but some wildfires aren’t even located in forests. Moreover, scientific evidence clearly shows that climate change is exacerbating California’s wildfires in different ways:

  • Higher temperatures dry out vegetation and soil, creating more wildfire fuel.
  • Climate change is shortening the California rainy season, thus extending the fire season.
  • Climate change is also strengthening the Santa Ana winds that fan particularly dangerous wildfires in Southern California.
  • The warming atmosphere is slowing the jet stream, leading to more California heat waves and high-pressure ridges in the Pacific. Those ridges deflect from the state some storms that would otherwise bring much-needed moisture to slow the spread of fires. 11-13-18


Read more at Yale Climate Connections