California should take a lesson from what’s happening with wildfires in Arizona right now, says UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain. More than 220,000 acres have burned in active wildfires across that state.
“We can kind of look to Arizona and New Mexico right now … as a preview to what might be coming to California later in the season,” he said. “The fires in Arizona right now are extremely large and intense. They're burning in places that haven't burned in a long time.”
California’s peak dry season is usually late in the summer and fall, but fires have already begun at lower elevations in the state.
“Parts of Arizona are experiencing drought of a similar severity to what we're seeing in Northern California,” he said. “Droughts expand and intensify in some regions of summer.”
So far this year there’ve been 2,767 wildfires in California and there are a few actively burning such as the Walker Fire east of Stockton and the Avila Fire along the Central Coast.
“As of earlier this week we had over 1,000 more fires compared to last year,” said Cal Fire Captain Robert Foxworthy. “We have had an uptick in our fire activity without a doubt. With the expected hot and dry weather we do expect those conditions to continue.”
Note: The data represented on this chart only includes Cal Fire incidents, while the total number of incidents managed by Cal Fire and the US Forest Service so far in 2020 is 2,767.
Foxworthy says wildfires over the past few weeks are normal in that grass is a fuel that dries out fast. That’s why some of the blazes may feel like they’re near communities, especially in Northern California, he says.
“Our big population center is basically in the valley and the surrounding foothills and in the Bay Area,” he said. “That's where we have that kind of grassy area that's burning at this time.”
But UCLA's Swain says part of the reason for the early wildfires is because of spring heat waves along the coast and in Northern California that usually come later in the year. He says it is very likely another heat wave will come the last 10 days of June.
“We don't necessarily see these early season heat waves every year, but we are this year,” he said. “It is very unusual to have seen three or four of these events at this time of year, not unheard of, but definitely pretty unusual.”
Swain also says there is growing evidence that warming temperatures, like heat waves, are the result of climate change. He helped publish a paper in April with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment forecasting longer and more extreme wildfires.
“The warming that we've already seen in California has essentially doubled the occurrence of extreme wildfire conditions in the state,” he said. “That was a significantly larger effect than I was expecting to see.”
The heat waves have caused grasses to grow tall and subsequently dry them. All that grass is fuel when winds pick up and humidity is low. That’s when the National Weather Service issues red flag warnings and fire weather watches. The area between Turlock to Redding is under a warning until Thursday evening.
That wind is part of what can make a fire more destructive and climate change has this indirect connection with wind, says James Thorne, a research scientist with UC Davis' Department of Environmental Science and Policy.
“Winds are connected to warming temperatures,” he said. “The climate change modeling community is only recently trying to grapple with how we incorporate much higher wind speeds, so the same fire that you might have had 10 years ago when the winds were slower today can go a lot faster.”
But Thorne says it’s not all bad news for California as climate change worsens. He says around 15% of the state, if what’s there is retained, can put those areas in a sort of climate change slow lane. He calls these spots “climate refugia.”
“The places that are the vegetation refugia are the places where we might have a better chance to retain the vegetation that's currently standing there,” he said.
Grasslands along the coast are part of them as well as forests in the Klamath Mountains and the northern Sierra Nevada. He says these areas may have the resources to withstand climate change, but the remaining 85% of the state will face more severe climate stress like wildfire.
“But the refugia don't necessarily mean that they're safe from burning,” he said. “The more there has been fire suppression in those locations, the more fuel is lying around and so the wildfires themselves are a dynamic that could happen.”
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