Oct 28, 2019

California fires: Is climate change making the winds stronger?

Sonoma County, CA
Santa Rosa, CA
USA
by
Paul Rogers
,
The Mercury News
Firefighters stand watch by a fire line along Mayacama Club Drive as the Kincade Fire burns in the outskirts of Santa Rosa, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2019. Credit: Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group
Firefighters stand watch by a fire line along Mayacama Club Drive as the Kincade Fire burns in the outskirts of Santa Rosa, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2019. Credit: Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group

The winds in the hills north of Healdsburg hit 93 mph Sunday, spreading huge flames from the Kincade Fire across the rural Sonoma County landscape and forcing the evacuation of more than 185,000 people.

A day later, on Monday, hot Santa Ana winds roaring toward the ocean in Los Angeles reached 66 mph as the Getty Fire threatened houses and freeways.

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“We have wind records going back to the 1940s,” said Park Williams, a bio-climatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York. “We don’t see any trend one way or another in the frequency or the intensity of these wind events. This year is probably going to go down as a record year, but we don’t see a trend so far.”

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, agreed. But, he said, “While there’s not much evidence at this point of a direct link between climate change and changes in offshore wind patterns, there is evidence that climate trends are increasing the likelihood that such winds coincide with dangerously dry vegetation conditions, leading to increased wildfire risk.”

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“Would this fire have happened if there was no climate change? Probably,” said Paul Ulrich, an associate professor of climate modeling at UC Davis. “But with climate change, you are going to have conditions that are more conducive to larger, more intense fires in the years ahead.”

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Simply put, the West is hotter and drier now than it was a generation or two ago. Soils are more arid, and trees and brush have less moisture. One spark has a higher chance of doing immense damage.