Nov 16, 2018

2. Humans are a wildfire threat multiplier

Data: CAL FIRE and US Forest Service, NOAA; Note: Lines of best fit created using LOESS smoothing; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

The fires that wiped out the town of Paradise, California, and burned all the way to the Pacific Ocean in Malibu are the latest in a 13-month string of the deadliest and most destructive blazes the state has ever seen.

The big picture: These fires have parameters in common — unusually warm and dry preceding conditions, strong winds that caused the fires to spread rapidly, extreme fire behavior and populated areas that are difficult to evacuate on short notice.

Between the lines: No single factor — not climate change, forest management or building practices — is responsible for the deadly blazes the state is now seeing, experts tell Axios.

  • Instead, it's their combination that's making an already dicey situation far worse. And the outlook in coming years, as climate change continues, is foreboding.
  • The state's fire season now stretches later into the fall and starts earlier in the spring.
  • “Fire season in California doesn’t have a well-defined boundary anymore, that’s been true for some time."— Brenda Belongie, US Forest Service meteorologist

Driving the news: Longer-term climate change and population growth are combining to increase wildfire risk in California and more broadly across the American West.

  • One of the starkest changes firefighters are contending with is an uptick in instances of extreme fire behavior, such as the massive EF-3 fire tornado that accompanied the Carr Fire in July.
  • The biggest climate change-related impact is manifested in the increased dryness of vegetation.

“The warming equals drying equals more explosive fire growth," said Neil Lareau, a researcher specializing in fire weather at the University of Nevada at Reno.

The housing factor: Another major factor in the impact of these fires is the increasing number of people living in the so-called wildland-urban interface, or WUI, where communities sit next to lands that typically burn. But simply stopping building in such regions is not necessarily a practical solution."Almost everywhere we live in the West is wildland-urban interface," said Lareau. "It's overly simple to say we shouldn't be building here."

The bottom line: The recent, deadly fires are the new normal in California, and residents of other Western states should be paying close attention, because they could be next.

Go deeper: A 30-year alarm on the reality of climate change

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Australia's deadly fires: What you need to know

The Australian flag flies under red skies from fires on Jan. 4 in Bruthen, Victoria. Photos: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

The Orroral Valley fire has burned through nearly 25% of the district that's home to Australia's capital, News.com.au reports, after ACT Emergency Controller Georgeina Whelan said the fire was rapidly growing into the south east on Saturday.

The latest: The Orroral fire grew from 81,544 acres to at least 129,073 acres on Saturday, based on Whelan's initial statement, and ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr's following estimate. Whelan said the Orroral fire is expected to move "well into" New South Wales, which creates potential for it to reach and merge with other bushfires in the area.

December's Democratic debate shows climate's reach in the party's messaging

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Thursday's debate nicely encapsulated the way that climate change has become stitched into the fabric of wider Democratic policy and messaging on many topics.

The state of play: While a huge Green New Deal-style mobilization lacks legs in Congress, its all-encompassing conceptual framing — climate as inseparable from industrial policy, human rights and much more — is carrying the day.

Go deeperArrowDec 20, 2019

The future of firefighting

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The world is entering the age of extreme fire — and we're increasingly unprepared for it.

The big picture: As we've seen in Australia, California and the Amazon, fires are burning hotter, longer and more frequently around the world. Our resources to suppress them are stretched dangerously thin. And even though the wildfires are getting worse, the way we fight them hasn't changed in a century.

Go deeperArrowJan 15, 2020