- The devastating wildfires tearing through Southern California are happening during an especially bad fire season out west.
- Earlier this year, California saw its deadliest fire disaster in history.
- These fires are worse than normal at least partially because it has been so hot and dry in California during what should be the wet season.
It’s an out-of-control situation and only getting worse, with peak fire conditions expected to last through at least Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.
These devastating blazes come during a disturbingly destructive and long wildfire season throughout the west. Earlier this fall, Northern California experienced the deadliest fire disaster in state history.
“This one, in particular, has been a longer season. It really hasn’t stopped since the fall of 2016,” Chris Wilcox of the National Interagency Fire Center told NPR’s Linda Wertheimer on Weekend Edition in September.
As the ongoing disaster in Southern California shows, things haven’t let up. For those looking for an explanation of what’s making the season so bad, there are numerous factors. It’s the season that wildfires typically break out in Southern California. But exceptionally hot and dry conditions combined with normal factors have put parts of the state into “uncharted territory” when it comes to fire risk, according to a presentation by Alex Tardy of the National Weather Service San Diego Office.
What’s making this such a bad year for fires
Normally, high-pressure weather systems force winds to whip down through Southern California in the fall and winter. These Santa Ana winds typically peak in December or January, according to Tardy’s presentation. This year, they’re particularly intense, with winds of more than 80 mph spreading blazes far faster than they can be contained.
“There will be no ability to fight fire in these kinds of winds,” California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, said of the Thursday forecast, the Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Serna said on Twitter.
The region has seen one of the hottest and driest starts ever to what should be the wet season.
Temperatures are about 15 degrees above normal for this time of year, according to Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist who recently reported that Los Angeles had received just 0.11 inches of rain since October 1.
While numerous factors may have played a role in the specific weather patterns seen over Southern California over the past few months, experts say that climate change has played a role more generally in making the wildfire season longer and more extreme.
The amount of land burned in the US since 1984 is double what would have been expected without the effects of climate change in that period, according to one study. And the average wildfire season in the west now lasts at least 2 1/2 months longer than it did in the early 1970s, according to WXshift, a project of the climate-change research and reporting organisation Climate Central.
In California, scientists have reported that climate change exacerbated the multiyear drought that ended with rains last winter. Those rains created an abundance of new growth that then dried out over an exceptionally hot summer. New growth tends to be brushy and flammable – and it can be blown a long way, which spreads fires farther and creates new ones. All of that new vegetation plus older trees that never received enough moisture to fully recover from the drought made for a bumper crop of fire fuel.
The National Weather Service expects critical conditions to continue through at least the weekend. But it will most likely be some time before there’s any rain in the region. As of Tuesday, the Global Forecast System didn’t expect any measurable precipitation in California for at least 16 days.
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