Jul 11, 2017

There’s an alarming connection between climate change and the California wildfires

Santa Barbara County, CA
USA
by
Anna Swartz
,
Mic
Firefighters battling a wildfire near Oroville, California, on Saturday, July 8. Photo: Noah Berger, AP
Firefighters battling a wildfire near Oroville, California, on Saturday, July 8. Photo: Noah Berger, AP

Multiple devastating wildfires in California and other parts of the West have forced nearly 8,000 people to leave their homes — and according to experts, human-made climate change is at least partially to blame.

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The climate in California has already begun changing, becoming warmer and drier. That, in turn, leads to an earlier snowmelt, more drought and conditions in which pine beetle infestations spread. All this means more dead trees — millions of them, in fact — which make perfect kindling for wildfires.

Those elements have compounded to turn the western and southwestern U.S. into a “tinderbox,” according to Rachel Cleetus, the lead economist and climate policy manager with the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The reality is that, in the southwest and the western U.S., hotter, drier conditions — which climate change is a big contributing factor towards — are making our fire seasons more fierce and longer,” Cleetus said in a phone call Monday.

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In an email to Mic on Monday, John Abatzoglou, climate scholar and an associate professor of geography at the University of Idaho, said climate change has “helped enable” at least some of the increase in wildfires in the western U.S.

Climate change has contributed to both an earlier start to the fire season and drier vegetation, he said.

“Across much of the western U.S. during the fire season we’ve seen substantial increases in fire danger over the past four decades, with about half of this increase attributed to human-caused climate change,” Abatzoglou said.