California’s wildfires are getting worse. They have been for years.
While this summer’s wildfire season isn’t over just yet, news outlets across the country have been suggesting that 2018 could be California’s worst year for wildfires. Two of this summer’s fires – the Mendocino Complex fire and the Carr fire – top the list of the largest wildfires in the state’s recent recorded history, with the former burning through an area more than half the size of Rhode Island, according to an SFGate article published Tuesday.
Yet recently it seems that every year has been deemed California’s worst year for wildfires. Just the day before last year’s Skirball fire burned through Bel Air in December, the Los Angeles Daily News wrote that 2017 was “going down as the most destructive wildfire season in California history.” While 2016 was comparatively low – strong emphasis on comparatively – on wildfire damages, CNN wrote in 2015 “the American West has seen one of its worst fire seasons this year.”
This year really takes the cake, though. As of Sunday, California wildfires have burned through 1,227,473 acres, according to statistics from CAL FIRE and the US Forest Service. Throughout all of last year, fires burned through 1,248,606 acres, so considering we’re only about 65 percent of the way through the year, 2018′s fires have already burned through about 98 percent as much as last year’s.
As of Monday, there were eight fires burning actively throughout the state, mostly in the north, accounting for 824,863 acres burned, according to data published by the National Interagency Fire Center. If all the fires were to end within the next month or so, these numbers might not be such a big deal, but the reality of dealing with these fires shows that that’s not the case.
In fact, a 2015 study published in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters divides the year in Southern California into two different fire seasons: the summer wildfire season from June to September and the Santa Ana winds wildfire season from October to April, leaving a brief and relatively fire-free period in the month of May. In the NIFC’s National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook, the center also predicted above normal fire activity throughout California and other parts of the West Coast through November, meaning that this year is highly likely to surpass last year’s 1,248,606 acres burned by wildfires – perhaps even by next week.
At the core of this year-to-year worsening of California’s wildfire conditions is a likely and notorious culprit: climate change. This is by no means a particularly revolutionary claim, and in fact follows rather simple logic – in short, climate change has made drought conditions in the state more severe, making the state drier and thus more susceptible to blazing fires, especially during the aforementioned summer wildfire season.
While climate change isn’t the sole reason for the damage caused by any of the individual fires, it can help us understand the yearly trend of their increasing intensity. In the case of Northern California fires, it appears that climate change has had a more pronounced effect; with Southern California fires, this effect is less evident. Combined with other factors, such as increased population and urbanization, these fires are undoubtedly causing more damage each year.
The 2015 study uses data from about 50 years of wildfire records to denote some major differences between the Santa Ana winds season and the summer season. Fires that occur during the former tend to spread much faster and take place closer to urban populations – both of which were major characteristics of the Skirball fire that came so close to campus. On the other hand, fires during the summer season tend to persist for longer periods of time. As California’s summers grow drier and hotter, the researchers predicted that the area burned in these summer fires will increase by about 77 percent by the middle of the 21st century.
Not so surprisingly, then, The Washington Post recently reported that July was not just California’s hottest recorded July ever, but rather the hottest recorded month in the state’s history. Many students will remember the weather alert issued throughout Los Angeles on July 6, during which temperatures in the city reached a high of 108 degrees Fahrenheit. The average historical high for July 6 is 26 degrees cooler, at a mere 82 degrees.
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What’s more is that wildland fires also have the potential to release carbon dioxide from the soil into the atmosphere, further contributing to the climate change that only makes them worse each year, creating a nasty cycle. Ultimately, it’s up to voters and politicians to put in place more concrete policies that will slow down the effects of man-made climate change – lest we end up spending even more resources on suppressing the damages of these wildfires in the midst of intensifying weather conditions.