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A Mix of Unusual Forces Is Fueling Southern California's Fires

Climate
NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik's view of the fires from the International Space Station. Randy Bresnik ‏/ Twitter

California is reeling from an especially bad year of wildfires, from the wine country fires in the North during October to the out-of-control flames currently raging across the South.

In fact, the Golden State has been experiencing a higher frequency of intense wildfires in recent years, with 13 of the largest 20 wildfires in state history breaking out since 2000.


"Our, if you want to call it, seasons have been elongated by upwards of 40-50 days over the last 50 years and continues to do so," Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean told ABC7 News this week. "We had the five years of drought. A lot of trees died, over 102 million trees died."

So does the SoCal blaze have anything to do with climate change?

Experts say that a mix of conditions is stoking the flames, but a direct link to global warming is still unclear.

However, you can definitely blame the fast-moving blazes on unusually forceful Santa Ana winds, with gusts that have blown between 50 to 80 miles per hour. A color-coded system showing the strength of the winds was "purple" or "extreme" on Thursday—that's completely uncharted territory.

John Abatzoglou, an associate professor of geography and climate at the University of Idaho, told The Atlantic that the Santa Ana winds are becoming more prevalent or moving later in the year. The Santa Ana winds commonly occur in Southern California between October and March.

Climate change's effect on the Santa Ana winds is uncertain, but a 2006 study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters "suggested that warming could shift the winds' season leading to larger areas burned by fires," as TIME wrote.

Another unusual condition occurring in the region is the lack of rain. The state's wet season should have started by now but “much of the southern half of California is pitching a shutout in terms of rainfall to date," Abatzoglou further explained. That's a characteristic of a weak La Niña in the tropical Pacific, which is causing cooler global temperatures but preventing storms from making landfall in Southern California, he said.

Other scientists have tied California's fires to rising temperatures and years of epic drought that dried tree canopies, grasses and brush that spark wildfires.

"There's a clear climate signal in these fires because of the drought conditions connected to climate change," Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, told InsideClimate News.

The years 2014, 2015 and 2016 have been the third, second and first hottest years on record to date, and each of these years hosted its own record-breaking fire in the state.

"As long as there's fuel to burn, your chances of having large fires increases when you increase temperatures. It's that simple," added Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

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