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Researchers: Climate change is driving factor in many California wildfires

Study finds that wildfires could grow exponentially in the next 40 years, as temperatures continue to rise


A plane drops fire retardant on a hillside in an attempt to box in flames from a wildfire during the Sand Fire in Rumsey, Calif.

AP Photo/Josh Edelson

Global climate change impacts on temperature and precipitation are influencing the frequency of extreme climatic events and requiring large-scale emergency preparedness and response in the U.S. Learn more in the series “Impact of Climate Change on the Fire Service,” which explores how the fire service can incorporate climate science to prepare for and mitigate future disasters.

By FireRescue1 Staff

LA JOLLA, Calif. — University researchers completed a study backing the assertion that climate change is driving many California wildfires.

Researchers with the Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory published a study with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego in the Journal Earth’s Future. The study found that recent summer fires that plagued Northern California have a connection with the ground conditions that are brought on by the heat.

According to Scripps: “The researchers say the summer forest fire increases are driven by a simple mechanism: When air heats up even modestly, it causes more moisture to evaporate from soils and vegetation. Thus fires start more easily, and can spread faster and farther. During the fall, and in non-forested coastal areas, more complicated dynamics are at work and the results are less clear; but the researchers project that climate-driven aridity, related in part to declining fall precipitation, is likely to play a growing role there as well.”

The study indicates that the average summer temperatures in California have risen an average of 3.3 degrees F since 1896, with three-quarters of that increase happening since the 1970s. Further, the study suggests that wildfires could grow exponentially in the next 40 years, as temperatures continue to rise.

For this study, researchers combined data from many sources, some of it going back 100 years. According to the Scripps, “They found that growing temperature-induced vapor pressure deficit accounted for nearly all the growth in forest fires from 1972-2018.” Researchers also note that the year 2017 broke the state record for the largest individual fire, and in 2018 a new record was set with almost 1.7 million acres burned.

“Human-caused warming has already significantly enhanced wildfire activity in California, particularly in the forests of the Sierra Nevada and the North Coast, and will likely continue to do so in the coming decades,” the study indicated. That said, the study authors noted that the effects of climate on wildfires are seasonal and depend on vegetation type, topography and human settlement patterns across California’s diverse landscape.

Read the full release from Scripps News.

The authors of the study are John Abatzoglou of the University of Idaho; Janin Guzman-Morales of Scripps; Jennifer Balch of the University of Colorado; Dennis Lettenmaier of the University of California; and Daniel Bishop of Lamont-Doherty.