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
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.