With wind comes fire: The climate changes driving the devastating wildfires in California

Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

When Santa Ana winds blow in Southern California, it is almost guaranteed that somewhere, a spark will blow into a wildfire. But what the beleaguered, exhausted state is experiencing this year is unprecedented.

According to the LA Times, this is now the worst year on record for wildfires in California. Now, even during the rainy season, we are seeing winds driving massive wildfires.

Several massive wildfires broke out in southern California Tuesday, with several major cities including Ventura and Santa Clarita directly impacted as high Santa Ana winds swept through the area. Despite it being the rainy season, California has had limited rainfall, and conditions are ripe for wildfires. So far the Thomas fire alone has consumed 65,000 acres, including multiple residences and Vista Del Mar, a behavioral health facility. The situation is so dire that Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency, first in Ventura County and now Los Angeles County as well. Evidence of the massive reach of the fires can be seen in this NASA satellite photo.

To examine why this fire season has been so much more destructive than previous ones, I got in touch with RL Miller, cofounder of Climate Hawks Vote, a PAC building grassroots political power for the climate movement.

“Extreme wildfires in California are consistent with a long-term trend of increasing wildfire activity observed in the western U.S., much of which has been driven by global warming,” Miller told me in an email. “Since 1970, temperatures in the American West have increased by about twice the global average, and the western wildfire season has grown from five to seven months on average. Climate change has contributed to California’s longer fire seasons, the growing number and destructiveness of fires, and the increasing area of land consumed.”

As for this year specifically, Miller added, “record hot conditions this past summer and fall helped to prime the dry landscape fueling the Thomas fire.”

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), nine out of the state’s 20 most destructive fires have occurred in the last 10 years, with the recent Tubbs fire in Sonoma County being the 3rd deadliest in the state’s history. Climate scientists warn this will become increasingly common as the ice pack reserves do not become replenished, and as the rainy season becomes warmer and less rainy. This means that California’s fire season could turn from being primarily contained in the hot and dry summer months, to becoming a year-round phenomenon that devastates state resources and residents.

Where do we go from here?

Miller is committed to influencing the dialogue around climate change, and believes that “the only policy that helps is a policy accelerating our transition away from fossil fueled carbon pollution and toward a renewable energy-powered economy.” She hopes that SB 100, a bill requiring California to get 100 percent of its power from clean sources by 2045, will change the course.

As a resident of Ventura county herself, Miller added on a personal note: “[W]e’re still in the middle of the danger zone. Within my circle of Ventura County Dem Party activists, 1 lost her home, 2 lost homes on their blocks, a 4th is waiting out the night — the fire is 1 mile away from her in Ojai — and several more in Simi Valley are hoping that the L.A. county firefighters are able to hold a line to keep a separate fire from advancing into Simi Valley. The winds, and thus the fires, are expected to continue through Friday.”

Updated information can be obtained at Cal Fire’s Incident Information webpage. KPCC, a local radio news source for Southern CA, has a firetracker online you can check for updates — including particle density, which can be vitally important for anyone with respiratory issues.

Southern California residents who live near the fires can go here for information on how to sign up to be alerted of evacuations happening in their areas.