Nov 16, 2018 - Energy & Environment

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.

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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.

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Thousands protest for climate action in Australia as fires ravage continent

Participants hold placards as they take part in a demonstration demanding the government take immediate action against climate change in Sydney on Jan. 10. Photo: Mohammad Farooq/Getty Images

Thousands of protesters took to the streets across Australia on Friday, calling on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to resign for what they call inaction on climate change and an inadequate response to the bush fire crisis that has scorched the continent, the Washington Post reports.

Why it matters: Morrison's stance on climate-related issues has come under scrutiny throughout the deadly wildfire season. In particular, his "reputation as a coal advocate has not helped as he has struggled to project empathy for victims of the fires," the Post writes.

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Climate change’s surprise twist

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The economics, politics and science of climate change are converging and catapulting this problem from a joke among critics to a prominent concern.

Driving the news: Shifts across Washington, D.C., among corporate leaders and within financial institutions are creating a foundation that could produce big movement on this problem for the first time since, well, forever.

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