Climate Change Raises CA Wildfire Risk In the Midst of Pandemic

Red Cross wildfire emergency shelter in Northridge, CA, October 2019. Image: Dean Musgrove/LADaily News/SCNG

According to a new analysis by Stanford University, climate change has doubled the number of extreme-risk days for California wildfires. As Scientific American explained that researchers found that temperatures rose about 1.8° F statewide while precipitation dropped 30% since 1980. That doubled the number of autumn days—when fire risk is highest—with extreme conditions for the ignition of wildfires.

California’s wildfire risk is rising at the same time that firefighters are warning that the coronavirus pandemic has greatly hindered emergency preparation for wildfire season. 

The Study: The analysis revealed that the Golden State’s climate has shifted considerably in recent decades.

  • The five warmest years on record occurred from 2014 to 2018.
  • Over the past century, temperatures have risen year-round “with the most pronounced warming in the late summer and early autumn.”

And there’s evidence of how climate change is compounding wildfire risk. Scientific American explained that in November 2018, the Camp Fire—the deadliest on record—rampaged through Paradise, a small community in the northern Sierra Nevada foothills. The fire burned in a region that historically would have seen 5 to 10 inches of rain by that time of year–instead, vegetation was tinder.

Not Prepared for Fires: The LA Times reported that although top emergency officials say they are hopeful that the spread of COVID-19 will taper off by the time serious fire weather arrives in the fall, the outbreak has already forced departments to:

  • put large training exercises on hold,
  • cancel controlled burns
  • and delay inspections of fire-prone properties in Los Angeles.

Around the country, as CNBC wrote, Firefighters are ill or under quarantine. Others worry they’ll contract the virus in crowded base camps during wildfire outbreaks. And fewer personnel will be available for emergency calls since the public health crisis has delayed new hiring and training.

Then there’s the question of how to evacuate people when they are under shelter in place orders, emergency shelters during an outbreak of a highly transmissible disease could present more danger than the fires themselves. 

Why This Matters: We can’t predict when emergencies will occur, all we can do is be prepared. If the coronavirus has shown us anything it’s that we’re shockingly unprepared to react to emergency situations and many costly missteps could have been prevented had a protocol been in place. That’s why it’s so important for FEMA to issue guidance for how COVID-19 may affect emergency responses and what we can do to be ready–something Senator Kamala Harris has been asking for weeks.


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