Warming climate likely leading to larger California fires


Enlarge / The 2018 Camp Fire burned more buildings and claimed more lives than any other fire in California’s history. (credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

The last couple years have seen devastating and record-setting wildfires in California, leaving many in the region to wonder what to expect in the future. Elsewhere in the US West, research has found that fires were increasing due to a combination of climate change and other human activities, which exacerbate both the fires and the damage they cause. But California is a different beast from much of the West and requires its own analysis.

A new study from a team led by Park Williams and John Abatzoglou—also the scientists behind a recent study of western US fires—uses government records of California wildfire areas going back to 1972, along with weather data and climate model simulations. The work breaks California into four different regions based on vegetation. The coast is split into a forested northern section, separate central and southern shrublands, with the forested Sierra Nevada rounding out the list.

Big changes

Overall, the average area burned by fires each year in California has increased by a factor of five since 1972—a remarkable increase. However, this is mostly due to an even larger increase in the forested parts of the state, as the central and southern coastal regions haven’t really seen an increase.

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