The Climate Connection to California’s Wildfires

What do California’s wildfires have to do with climate change? The connections are very strong, scientists who have studied the issue say.

While California’s climate has always made the state prone to fires, the link between human-caused climate change and bigger fires is inextricable, said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “This climate-change connection is straightforward: Warmer temperatures dry out fuels. In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark,” he said.

Here is a selection of our coverage of the connection between climate change and California’s wildfires.

Insurers, facing huge losses, have been pulling back from fire-prone areas across California. “The marketplace has largely collapsed,” an advocate for counties in the state said.

Fires in California in 2019 burned nearly 260,000 acres and researchers say record breaking years are likely to continue. As global temperatures rise, understanding fire is becoming ever more important.

Hundreds of thousands of some of the country’s poorest, most neglected workers continue to pluck, weed, and pack produce for the nation as temperatures soar into the triple digits for days at a time and the air turns to a soup of dust and smoke.

Recent research suggests that as the climate warms, Santa Ana winds may become less frequent. Coupled with precipitation changes, that could mean more intense fires later in the year.

It’s become clear that an expected impact of climate change in California is increasing year-to-year variability in temperature and precipitation that will create greater contrast between drought years and wet years. And that can lead to much greater fire risk.

Early releases of prisoners to protect them from the coronavirus have depleted the ranks of an inmate firefighting program that some say should be abolished anyway.

Related: The Incarcerated Women Who Fight California’s Wildfires By choice, for less than $2 an hour, the female inmate firefighters of California work their bodies to the breaking point. Sometimes they even risk their lives.

An increasing number of Americans are moving into the zones known as the “wildland-urban interface,” where nature and development collide. Some move to live closer to nature, others to avoid government regulations or find a lower cost of living. There are also Indigenous communities and people who work the land. But the result can be disastrous.

Preparing the landscape to make future fires more manageable involves clearing fire breaks and building with more fire-resistant materials in areas of high risk. Support is also building for another method, which involves prescribed burns. It reverses the U.S. policy of suppressing fires, which has been in place for more than 100 years, and which has allowed dry fuel to accumulate. And no, the answer is not raking the forests.

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