Climate change is contributing to California’s fireschevron-down

Photograph by Noah Berger/AP
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Dry seasons are intensifying, increasing fire risk. And when autumn winds kick in, as they have this week, the flames break loose. Expect more of that.


California is burning.

The dangerous fires that have broken out across the state show no signs of stopping, driven by record powerful seasonal winds that are forcing hundreds of thousands of residents from their homes as the flames roar across hilltops and through vineyards. The biggest of them, the Kinkaid Fire in Northern California, is not under control yet and is expected to grow as winds pick up later in the week.

The most disastrous fires in California often occur in the fall. The long, dry summers transform vegetation into the perfect fuel for the annual winds that whip across the landscape.

Frequent fires are part of California’s natural state. Many of its ecosystems, from the chaparral of Southern California to the northern pine forests, evolved to burn frequently. But since the 1980s, the size and ferocity of the fires that sweep across the state have trended upward: Fifteen of the 20 largest fires in California history have occurred since 2000. And since the 1970s, the amount of area burned in the state has increased by a factor of five.

Climate change’s stamp is evident in many of the fires, scientists say, primarily because hotter air means drier plants, which burn more readily.

Fuelling the fires

Over the past century, California has warmed by about 3 degrees Fahrenheit, more than the global average of about one degree Fahrenheit. Hotter air draws water out of plants and soils more efficiently than cool, leaving the trees, shrubs, and rolling grasslands of the...

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