The news is bad, and is being widely covered. Here I just want to make a remark or two about the link between big fires and global warming.
As of last report, there are 15 known dead and 150 or more missing. Hopefully they are only virtually and not actually missing; there is a lot of confusion and communication resources are in many cases down.
Wild fires are tricky in more ways then one. It is easy to get caught in one (I’ve manage that myself), and it is hard to predict or fully understand why some years have more than others. There has been a long term trend nationally towards fewer wild fires, for several reasons, most of which have to do with human activities. The most significant part of that trend is that humans caused many, huge, often deadly wild fires in the past. The worst wildfire ever in Minnesota, in terms of Death toll, was during World War I and had mainly to do with farming and railroads being a bad mix. Cutting lots of land to farm provides the fuel, and in those days, railroads were travelling tinderboxes sparking fires everywhere they went.
But that all got under control partly because the timber industry finished cutting down much of America’s forests, and because practices changed.
But over recent decades there has been yet another increase in fires. Much of that increase is likely due to climate change. Human caused changes in rainfall patterns have made for concentrations of dry fuel. I’m not sure about the role of winds in the current situation in California vis-a-vis global warming. And there are other factors.
The public conversation is full of naysaying, mainly fueled by the great unpredictability of fires and the messiness of the data, not the least of which includes the uncritical conflation of fire data from a century ago with recent observations.
Climate Signals has a page on California fires, and they provided the graphic at the top of this post.
The graphic avoids the earlier fires that happened for very different reasons by starting in the Depression when those shenanigans were attenuated by lack of economic activity, and work programs had started up that involved caring for rather than systematically destroying all the forests. Also, while there were plenty of big fires in the West in those days, not so much in California. For t he most part, these fires ahve a strong global warming signal.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, many of the profound changes we’ve seen in weather patterns, especially with respect to storms and rainfall, seem to have happened around 1980, with these changes intensifying in recent years. This graphic shows that signal as well.
Stay tuned and if you are in California near these fires, stay safe!