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EXTREME WILFIRES | California

Is California's extreme wildfire scenario the new norm?


Dr. Mario Picazo
Meteorologist, PhD

Tuesday, July 31, 2018, 4:06 PM - It's nothing new -- in recent years Californians have seen more ferocious wildfires affecting their state, a scenario experts have been warning about for quite some time.

The latest wildfires have been especially fierce, taking the lives of six people, including two firefighters. Thousands have been evacuated around the Carr Fire area in northern California, with close to 100,000 acres burnt as of Tuesday afternoon and over 5000 structures have been threatened by the flames. 

Devastation has hit near the world famous Yosemite National Park. Over 45,000 acres have burned there so far and flames have been moving very close to the ancient sequoias along the western edge of the park.

This year has been all-too similar to last year as very large and fast moving wildfires scorched thousands of acres, cliaming the lives of 44 in the wine country area north of San Francisco. 

RELATED: A perfect storm of factors is making wildfires bigger

Awareness of fires has been increasing because the media is following-upon the stories closely, but according to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory senior scientist Dr. Michael Wehner, it's not all about the news, more acres are burning in relation to climate change

ADORABLE TODDLER GIVES BREAKFAST TO CALIFORNIA FIREFIGHTERS BATTLING 'CARR FIRE'



WHAT IS ACTUALLY GOING ON WITH CALIFORNIA WILDFIRE SITUATION?

During the second half of July, vegetation moisture in many areas of California has been near or at record low levels. This low level moisture content is a result of a longer and drier summer and a drier winter, a situation that is becoming more frequent this last decade. 

This year, on top of the drought conditions, some torrential rain episodes led to explosive plant growth, followed by intense heat and rapid desiccation. An explosive succession of events with all the right ingredients at the right time for wildfires to occur during the weeks to come. As the climate of a region like the western U.S. including California shifts, so does the potential for wildfires to occur and most importantly, the way fire behaves. 

Current US Wildfire Map

According to experts, the Carr Fire has also behaved differently than other fires seen in recent years across the west. But climate change is not the only cause to blame for the extreme California fires. People are increasingly building in "risky" areas and forest management in some cases has allowed stands to grow denser than desired.  

WILDFIRE FACTORS

There are quite a few factors to keep in mind regarding the future scenario of California wildfires. The majority of climate change forecasts suggest that in climate to come there will be less rain in some areas of California during the fall months and more rain in December and January. This could translate into fires extending later into the Fall months thus greatly extending the fire risk season. 

But according to Dr. Alex Hall a professor in the UCLA Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Department, climate change may even affect California fires in other ways. Santa Ana and Diablo winds, which favor rapid wildfire growth and movement could become a bigger problem in years to come. 

In the future these regional winds should become drier as the planet warms, because warmer air over the high desert of Utah and Nevada has lower relative humidity and will become drier still as it descends into California. Drier air will lead to more desiccation and greater fire risk.

WATCH BELOW: DEVASTATION FOLLOWING CARR FIRE



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