Is Climate Change Affecting Northern California’s Devastating Fires?

On Monday I woke to the terrifying smell of smoke. From my home south of San Francisco, I could see the entire Bay Area covered in a thick layer, obscuring the sun.

As of Wednesday morning, October 11, the Northern California fires, 50 to 70 miles north, have killed at least 21 people, destroyed more than 2,000 structures and sent over 25,000 residents fleeing from their homes. Around 560 people have been reported missing, although the hope is that they are unable to get in touch since almost all communication systems are down.

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Napa County Fire Photo Credit: Screenshot from Washington Post online video

Seventeen large fires are raging primarily in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, with near zero containment. While the winds faded in strength on October 10, they were back in force on October 11, along with lower humidity levels.

What has caused these fires to be so devastating?

Timing

“This has been one of the deadliest weeks for fires that we’ve experienced in recent time,” said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director for Cal Fire. “And a lot of that has to do with the fact that the fires ignited overnight. Many people were asleep when the fire started. Getting them evacuated was an extreme challenge for rescue crews.”

High-Speed Winds

“The historic wind event that swept across PG&E’s service area late Sunday and early Monday packed hurricane-strength winds in excess of 75 mph in some cases,” Pacific Gas and Electric Company said.

These are “Diablo Winds,” a phenomenon that originates in Nevada and Utah in which air from these two states is forced from high to low elevation, causing it to blow harder and grow warmer. This made it easier for the flames to spread and also knocked down power lines where the fires started.

Santa-Rosa

Santa Rosa Destroyed By Fire Photo Credit: Screenshot from ABC online video

Plenty Of Fuel

William Stewart, co-director of the UC-Berkeley Center for Fire Research and Outreach, explains to Vice,

“There’s a lot more fuel out on a lot of forest rangelands because, especially on federal lands, we’re doing less timber harvesting and we’re doing less grazing, so there’s just more stuff to burn.” So conditions were perfect for wildfires after the winter from 2016 to 2017 was the wettest on record for the area. This spurred a lot of new plant life, but by summer all that vegetation had dried out.

Dry Conditions

October, the end of the dry season, is traditionally when California gets its most damaging wildfires. As of October 11, there is no rain in the forecast for the next week and humidity levels are low. The combination of massive amounts of dried vegetation and extreme dryness makes for perfect conditions for fires to spread rapidly.

Climate Change

Most wildfires are started by humans — whether intentionally or unintentionally — from things like cigarette butts and bonfires that aren’t completely extinguished. Climate change is not causing these devastating fires, but it is making them worse.

“Climate change is definitely a significant piece of why we’re having more fires,” says Stewart. “The long-term trend is more fires, and clearly we’re having warmer, dryer weather in the west. Especially in California, in our Mediterranean climate and also in the Rocky Mountains, there are more days where if you’re going to have lightning ignition or somebody throwing out a cigarette butt, it’s going to burn hotter, because it’s warmer outside. Climate change is definitely driving the increase.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes, “Wildfires, a longstanding and frequent threat to California, are expected to increase in intensity and frequency due to climate change.”

If you want to reach out to the thousands of people affected by the Northern California fires, Care2’s s.e. smith has assembled a list of organizations where you can help both humans and animals.

Photo Credit: Screenshot from Washington Post online video

40 comments

Marie W
Marie W3 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Mike R
Mike R8 months ago

Of course it is.

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Mike R
Mike R8 months ago

Of course it is.

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Mike R
Mike R8 months ago

Of course it is.

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Stephanie s
Stephanie Y8 months ago

Yes

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Stephanie s
Stephanie Y8 months ago

Yes

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One Heart i
One Heart inc9 months ago

thanks!!!!

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Adele E Zimmermann
Adele E Zimmermann9 months ago

I am amazed that EPA scientists were allowed to acknowledge climate change, let alone name it as a significant factor in California's wildfires. Must have slipped that one by Scott Pruitt while he was flying around on military and chartered jets.

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Carole R
Carole R9 months ago

Most likely it's rrue. The fires are beyond awful.

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Winn A
Winn A9 months ago

Yes, of course it is.

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