The Connection Between Climate Change and Wildfires
Updated: Mar 2
Many have experienced first-hand the devastating effects of the California wildfires. From the state's 2020 wildfires alone, over four million acres have burned and over nine thousand buildings have been destroyed, taking 31 lives and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes (Cal Fire). Despite the comments of many politicians, renowned scientists all agree that climate change indeed plays a role in these destructive fires.
Climate change creates warmer temperatures, which soaks up moisture from the air and makes the air drier. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the global average temperature has risen by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. While this number may not seem like a big deal, it has led to the dry air conditions that fuel fires. Small increases in heat lead to big increases in the amount of moisture the air can take in, and over a long period of time, soil and vegetation will parch, and we’ll begin to experience record-breaking heatwaves like the ones from this August and early September (Borunda). Additionally, warmer temperatures cause the formation of more thunderstorms and lightning, which is the main natural cause of wildfires. Doug Morton, chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA, adds that “warmer nighttime temperatures allow fires to burn through the night and burn more intensely, and that allows fires to spread over multiple days where previously, cooler nighttime temperatures might have weakened or extinguished the fire after only one day" (Gray).
An image of the SCU Lightning Complex fire, which burned 396,624 acres over 44 days in multiple counties, including Alameda.
Image from SFGate
According to President Trump, these wildfires are due to California’s forest management, not climate change. In the 43% of forested land that the state actually owns (the other 57% percent is managed by the US Forest Service), the state of California sets controlled fires to unclog forests of parched, flammable vegetation. However, despite the increased spending on forest fire prevention, experts like Chris French, who is the National Forest System deputy chief, agree that these efforts won’t be enough to stop the fires in such a dry, drought-wrecked state like California. It’s true that forest management plays a major role in wildfires--it’s responsible for the amount of fuel left behind for fires to burn--but climate change plays an even bigger role by exacerbating these and many other fire conditions that will continue to worsen without proper action.
Climate change also shortens winter seasons, which in turn elongates fire seasons. Cal Fire, California’s fire protection service, has said that they don’t even call it “fire season” anymore since it’s now practically year-round. This is because there is less precipitation--30% less since 1980--to keep the air humid and to also help put out a fire or keep it from spreading when a fire does occur. In fact, climate change likely increases the intensity of natural disasters, including heatwaves, droughts, and, of course, fires. Shorter winter seasons also mean that the snow is melting earlier, which gives plants and soil more time to dry out (Borunda). Coupling the lack of rain with the drier, hotter temperature, climate change can create a deadly arsenal for perhaps the worst fires in the history of California.
Climate change. Forest management. Human intervention. Countless other factors have worsened these wildfires, and if we truly do not want to see our own future lives filled with unbearable heat and unearthly weather, we must all do our fair shares: fight climate change and spread awareness.
Beda, Steven C. “Climate Change and Forest Management Have Both Fueled Today's Epic Western Wildfires.” The Conversation, 16 Sept. 2020, theconversation.com/climate-change-and-forest-management-have-both-fueled-todays-epic-western-wildfires-146247.
Borunda, Alejandra. “The Science Connecting Wildfires to Climate Change.” The Science of How Climate Change Impacts Fires in the West, National Geographic, 18 Sept. 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/09/climate-change-increases-risk-fires-western-us/.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). “Incidents Overview.” Cal Fire, CA.gov, www.fire.ca.gov/incidents/.
Check, Reality. “US West Coast Fires: Is Trump Right to Blame Forest Management?” BBC News, BBC, 14 Oct. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-46183690.
Editor. “Analysis: Trump's Wrong-California Does More to Manage Forests Than Feds.” Times of San Diego, 23 Sept. 2020, timesofsandiego.com/politics/2020/09/23/analysis-trumps-wrong-california-does-more-to-manage-forests-than-federal-government/.
Gray, Ellen. “Satellite Data Record Shows Climate Change's Impact on Fires – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet.” NASA, NASA, 11 Sept. 2019, climate.nasa.gov/news/2912/satellite-data-record-shows-climate-changes-impact-on-fires/.