As First Residents Return to Paradise, Study Shows Cali Forest Fires Have Increased 800%

The Camp Fire burns a home in Paradise, CA.     Photo: Noah Berger, AP

By Monica Medina and Alexandra Patel

A study just published in the Journal Earth’s Future found that as a result of California’s increasingly long and dry summers caused by climate change, the state overall has experienced in the last 50 years a 500% increase in the amount of land burned in fires.  While non-forest areas have not experienced a huge increase in fires in those areas, forested areas have seen an 800% increase in areas that have burned.  The researchers found that these trends are likely to continue to increase as temperatures continue to rise and rainfall decreases into the autumn.

Why This Matters:  The Camp Fire incident was the deadliest and most destructive fire in Californian history. It was the sixth deadliest fire in the United States and hit the top of the world’s costliest natural disasters in 2018. The total damage has been estimated at $16.5 billion.  To state the obvious, huge wildfires in California are the new normal because forested areas are increasingly becoming tinderboxes and no amount of culling of the deadwood will change that.  What can be done, however, is to prepare for the fires by improving warning and response systems, decreasing the risk from electric wires, keeping new residential development away from dry forested areas, and educating the public about how to minimize fire risks caused by accidents and carelessness.  In addition, educating the public in other states about the role of greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans in fueling climate change will help to move the U.S. more rapidly to carbon neutrality.  In the short run, however, Calfornia’s summer forest fire epidemic is likely to continue.

Every Degree Of Warming Makes It Worse.

The researchers looked at the data over the last fifty years and found that every degree of warming causes a larger area to burn than the previous degree of warming.  Park Williams, a climate scientist at Columbia University and an author of the paper, spoke to Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic and explained that “[e]very additional increment in heat in the environment speeds up evaporation, dries out soil, and parches trees and vegetation, turning them into ready fuel for a blaze.”

  • The researchers looked at the data over the last fifty years and found that every degree of warming causes a larger area to burn than the previous degree of warming.
  • As a result, even if Northern California gets lots of rain in the winter, the increasingly warm summers essentially overpower that in the forested areas.

Hope for Paradise:  The Camp Fire caused nearly the total destruction of the town of Paradise, California.  Now almost a year later, despite efforts to rebuild the community, more than 90 percent of its residents have yet to return.  On Monday, the city of Paradise issued its first Certificate of Occupancy for a rebuilt home to the Sinclair family, CNN reports. Along with all of the Sinclair family’s home and possessions, 13,972 homes, 528 businesses and 4,293 other buildings were destroyed or damaged during the Camp Fire. More than just constructing a new house, this family and others are still trying to restore the community as a whole.

Go Deeper: Check out The Atlantic’s excellent previous coverage of the devastating fires of last year, and in particular, this story on the Cal Fire investigation of the fires’ origins by Jacob Stern.

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