According to a new study led by researchers at Stanford University, autumn in California feels more like summer now as a result of climate change, and this hotter and drier weather increases the risk of longer and more dangerous wildfire seasons.
The research team, whose work was recently published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found that the frequency of extreme fire weather conditions in the fall in California has doubled since the early 1980s. Average temperatures during the season have increased by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and rainfall has fallen by approximately 30%. The most pronounced warming has occurred in the late summer and early fall. That finding means that tinder-dry conditions coincide with the strong “Diablo” and “Santa Ana” winds that are typical in California at this time of year.
In recent years, these conditions have fed large and fast-moving wildfires across California. The state’s two largest wildfires, two most destructive wildfires, and the most deadly wildfire all occurred during 2017 and 2018, resulting in more than 150 deaths and $50 billion in damage.
Because summertime has typically been peak fire season, the recent spate of autumn fires is putting a strain on firefighting resources and funding. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could further strain emergency resources. Since fire-prone regions have historically shared wildfire-fighting resources throughout the year, the consequences of California’s extended wildfire season could have a global impact. (For example, California’s recent autumn wildfires have coincided with the beginning of wildfires in Australia).
The researchers highlight some opportunities to manage the intensifying wildfire risk in California, including limiting the trajectory of global warming in keeping with the targets identified in the United Nations’ Paris agreement.
Photo, posted September 12, 2019, courtesy of the California National Guard via Flickr.