California’s Wine Country was ravaged by wildfires through most of October, marking the deadliest fire season the U.S. has ever seen. Firefighters from all over the country, including New York, traveled in to help as the death toll rose.
With more than 220,000 acres destroyed and thousands of people evacuated from their homes, experts are scrambling to explain why. Part of the reason is that wind gusts of up to 60 miles per hour fed the flames and carried embers, and another part is that October is notorious for being one of the worst months each year. (The last big wildfire in California, the Valley Fire, destroyed 1,955 structures in 2015.)
“By the end of the summer and into early fall the state’s vegetation is tinder dry,” said Jan Null, a California meteorologist and owner of Golden Gate Weather. “The bottom line is that the culmination of these patterns makes October a particularly tragic month for wildfires in California.”
There was a significant amount of rain last winter in California, which means there’s more fuel for the fire. That rain caused tremendous growth in bushes, grasses, and trees – in fact, vegetation grew more this year than it has in decades. After 5 months of historically hot and dry weather, it all served as tinder for the fires. It was uncharacteristically hot, particularly in San Francisco, this summer; the area set a record when it hit 106 degrees on September 1 (the city has been tracking its weather for 150 years).
Scientists are suggesting that climate change has something to do with it, as rising temperatures make vegetation drier.
“A warmer world will have drier fuels,” said Mike Flannigan, director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta in Canada. “Drier fuels will mean it’s easier for fires to start and spread.” He also says that heavy rainfall may not be enough to offset the effects. “You only need a week of hot, dry, windy weather before you can have a raging inferno,” he said.
The journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a 2016 study that said forests in the western U.S. were more likely to burn due to climate change, and that the areas susceptible would continue to grow.
What Do You Think?
What’s behind the raging wildfires in California this fire season? Could any of them have been prevented, or is this part of the cycle the whole earth goes through? Do you feel it could be due to climate change? I’d love to hear your take on it, so please share your thoughts on my Facebook page or on Twitter.