Fire season is getting longer

A new study finds that ‘fire weather’ days have increased, a trajectory expected to continue.

 

A firefighter runs a firing operation at night against the Dixie Fire in California on July 28, 2021.

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The hot, dry and windy weather conditions fueling the huge wildfires that have besieged the Western U.S. this summer have increased in frequency over the past 50 years, a new study has found.

Since 1973, global heating has desiccated the west, driving increases in “fire weather” days from the Pacific coast to the Great Plains, according to research by the nonprofit Climate Central. It found that the number of fire weather days increased steeply in parts of Texas and in California’s interior, and that southern Nevada, southeast California and swathes of New Mexico had the highest number of average annual fire weather days – with nearly a quarter of the year in some regions being characterized as having elevated risk.

Southern Texas, which saw about four annual fire weather days in 1973, now sees about 15 fire weather days a year. The Sacramento region in California, which used to experience about seven fire weather days, by 2020 was experiencing an average of 19. The latter region is where the devastating Camp Fire leveled the town of Paradise in 2018, and where the Dixie fire, which scorched the town of Greenville this year, was sparked.

Climate Central

“I started getting teary-eyed earlier, looking at the maps of the fire,” said Kaitlyn Weber of Climate Central, who led the data analysis. Her family cabin in Tahoe is just miles away from the edge of the vast, fast-moving Caldor fire, which earlier this week threatened her childhood homes in Pollock Pines and Pleasant Valley.

Even after she crunched numbers, the reality “is shocking,” she added.

On these hot, arid and windy days, a spark from a power line or a car accident could be all it takes to ignite a megafire.

The study’s findings, based on data from weather stations across the region, are consistent with other recent research suggesting that in many parts of the West, increased temperatures from human-caused climate breakdown are leading to more parched summers. Last year, climate scientists also found that in parts of California, fall fire weather days are expected to double by the end of the century and increase 40% by 2065. Fire season, which in many parts of the West peaks in the late summer and autumn, has been expanding.

“It’s clear that conditions we’re seeing right now in the West are very different from what we saw a few decades ago,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with the University of California, Los Angeles.

Climate Central

“The increase in hot and dry conditions appears to be fueling an increase in extreme fire.”

Weather isn’t the only thing that drives fires in the West. Most fires are started by humans, either deliberately or accidentally. And the fires require fuel to burn – and the extreme drought gripping the west, as well as a century of fire suppression, has led to the buildup of dead trees and vegetation that has helped stoke some of the largest fires in region. Dry soils have helped flames hurtle across the terrain unimpeded by moisture.

“The increase in hot and dry conditions appears to be fueling an increase in extreme fire.”

But the Climate Central analysis indicates that even beyond long-term, landscape-level changes exacerbated by the climate crisis, which have rendered parts of the west tinder-dry and primed to burn, “there has there been an increase just in the day-to-day meteorological conditions that contribute to extreme wildfire risk,” said Swain, who advised Climate Central on the report.

The broader implications for people in the west have been dire – reshaping their daily lives. A confluence of factors exacerbated by the climate crisis have fueled some of the most damaging, deadly fires on record over the past few years. Extreme fire weather has in many cases made it more challenging for firefighters to respond to fire. They often cannot expect cooler, more humid conditions at night to help them tamp down big blazes.

Power companies have begun to turn off electricity to residents in order to avoid equipment-related ignitions – leaving communities without power for medical equipment, refrigeration and, at times, air conditioning.

Although fire is a natural part of the landscape in California and other parts of the west, “it’s clear that what we’re seeing now isn’t natural,” said Weber.

Maanvi Singh is the Guardian’s West Coast political reporter, based in San Francisco. 

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Southern Nevada Conservancy Board of Directors announces an outstanding opportunity for a creative leader to continue building this organization. SNC proudly supports Nevada's public...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...