Climate Change Is Driving Many California Wildfires

The premise that warmer air draws moisture from the ground level — a phenomenon known as vapor pressure deficit — is already well established. However, many confounding factors can shift fire risk up or down, and so it is not always possible to measure the effects of vapor pressure deficit. In California, human infrastructure is sprawling into forests, introducing more chances for people to both cause fires and suffer from them. And a century of efforts to suppress virtually all fires has led to a buildup of flammable materials in many forests. On the other hand, fragmentation of forest landscapes by human intrusion may in some cases limit the spread of fires. Rainfall and snow can vary year to year, sometimes adding to fire risk, sometimes subtracting. And areas dominated by shrubs or grasses instead of trees may not react the same way.

The researchers combined data from many sources, some of it going back more than 100 years. They found that growing temperature-induced vapor pressure deficit accounted for nearly all the growth in forest fires from 1972-2018. In 2017, a modern state record was set for the largest individual wildfire (more than 285,000 acres) and the most destructive (5,636 structures burned, 22 people killed). 2018 saw a new record for total annual area burned (almost 1.7 million acres), and the 2017 records were broken for the biggest individual fire (the Mendocino Complex fire, which took out 464,500 acres) and the most destructive: the Camp Fire, which burned 18,804 structures and killed 85 people. The Camp Fire leveled almost the entire forest community of Paradise.

“The ability of dry fuels to promote large fires is non-linear, which has allowed warming to become increasingly impactful,” says the study. “Human-caused warming has already significantly enhanced wildfire activity in California, particularly in the forests of the Sierra Nevada and the North Coast, and will likely continue to do so in the coming decades.”

That said, the authors note that the effects of climate are highly seasonal, and can vary depending on vegetation type, topography and human settlement patterns across California’s highly diverse landscape. In summer, they found that summer fires did not increase in many non-forested areas dominated by grasses or shrubs. This, they say, was probably due to a combination of intense firefighting and prevention efforts, and reduced vegetation due to drought. In fall, destructive fires have grown, but because the dynamics of this season are complex, the effects of warming climate are not as obvious — at least not yet. The researchers say fall fires are driven in large part by powerful winds sweeping from the highland interior, as well as the amount and timing of precipitation, which tends to pick up around this time of year. These factors wax and wane from year to year, perhaps masking the effect of overall warming. But that effect is indeed just starting to show up in fall, and is likely to become more evident in the future, says Williams.