Eight of California’s top ten most destructive wildfires happened within the past 15 years, and six of them were within the past two months.
The most destructive, the Tubbs Fire, happened in October and destroyed around 5,600 structures along with the Pocket, Sonoma, Nuns, and Atlas fires.
The Thomas Fire blazes in Southern California are listed as the largest fire recorded in California’s history after burning 273,400 acres. At 85% containtained as of this writing, the fire is expected to carry out into the new year but the flames themselves pale in comparison to the impact the destruction has caused residents.
Hundreds of families were and continue to be displaced, many of confined to hotel rooms during the holiday season while struggling to find homes during the state’s housing affordability crisis.
Sadly, deadly fires like the ones this season might become a norm, experts say, due to climate change.
“For fires, sequencing is really important,” Alex Hall, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles was quoted in a New York Times article. “The sequence we’ve seen over the past five or six years is certainly very similar to the changes that we project as climate change continues to unfold.”
More frequent variability annually between wet and drought years increase the risk of fires.
The most recent case of this being the being the continuous drought years before 2016’s wet winter climate promoted vegetation growth. Last summer’s hot weather drying up the vegetation and Santa Ana winds essentially made Santa Rosa and surrounding areas the equivalent of a puddle of gasoline waiting for a lit match to set it ablaze. Now, the fires have spread to Los Angeles.
“These fires are not immediately emblematic of climate change,” John Abatzoglou, associate professor of geography and climate at the University of Idaho was quoted as saying in an Atlantic article. “Yes, California did have the warmest summer on record. But the big anomaly here is the delay in the onset of precipitation for the southland that has kept the vegetation dry and fire-prone.”
One of the reasons that this past season was exceptionally flammable are the Santa Ana winds.
These winds’ strong and dry gusts are notorious for setting wildfires in the west coast for two reasons: one, they dry up vegetation, providing fuel for possible fires, and two, they blow debris against power lines or carry open flame to provide the spark. The later in the year the winds blow, the more likely they are to start fire. Alexandra Syphard, a senior research scientist at the Conservation Biology Institute who researches fires, claims that all December fires since 1948 are associated with the Santa Ana winds.
A 2006 study by the University of California, Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests that the Santa Ana winds might be becoming more common and continue happening later in the year.
Though it would be too soon to label the cause of California’s worst fire season on climate change, there are studies that confirm that human induced global warming is the cause for the drought that started in 2012.
Factors like these should be considered going into the new year to be ready for more possible wildfires.