Scientists Link Climate Change to Recent Wildfires

Smoke from recent wildfires caused the sky to turn bright orange in San Francisco.

“It was like being inside a lit jack-o-lantern.” That’s how one person described the view in San Francisco on September 9th, 2020, as wildfires raged across California. Smoke particles filtering the Sun’s light caused the hazy, orange sky.

Wildfires across the western United States are growing larger and more destructive. This year, they have scorched over 4 million acres in California and Oregon. Towns have been destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of people have had to evacuate, or leave their homes. Why are wildfires becoming so intense?

The Climate Change Connection

Scientists say climate change is causing conditions that make it easier for wildfires to grow and spread. This summer, many western states hit record-high temperatures. On September 6, the temperature in Woodland Hills, California reached 121°F!

When high temperatures in an area are outside the historical average for two or more days, it’s called a heatwave. According to a study based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), heatwaves in Southern California have become more frequent, intense, and longer-lasting over the past 70 years. What does this have to do with wildfires? All this heat dries out grasses, shrubs, and other “fuel” for fires. The drier this vegetation is, the faster it can catch fire.

But climate change isn’t just about global warming. It also involves shifts in precipitation patterns. Droughts are on the rise. Long periods without rain are parching grasses, shrubs, and trees. Droughts and heatwaves are also extending hot, dry, summer conditions into the fall.

In the fall, California gets windy. Every year, strong winds blow down from mountains and deserts toward the coast. These powerful winds increase the risk of destructive wildfires, especially when heat and droughts have kept vegetation dry. The winds can whip up a tiny spark and almost instantly turn it into a dangerous, fast-spreading fire.

What Can You Do? Tell someone about the connection between climate change and wildfires. Research ways to help fight climate change.

Photo Credit: hkalkan/Shutterstock