Fires spread in California, growing faster as climate change worsens drought

People who live in California might like to think their state’s view of the sky is more than beautiful, but it’s also a possibility that a popular local beach might be on fire, as the latest sign that the impact of climate change on wildfires is much wider than expected.

Not only is there a new study published in the journal Global Change Biology about the effect of climate change on the bark beetle, but this year’s widespread drought is helping wildfires grow, according to scientists.

Bark beetles thrive on a lack of vegetation, and there are four areas in California where large wildfires fueled by drought are known to develop each year. To figure out how climate change affects the fires, scientists used recent years of data from the U.S. Forest Service to simulate fire behavior in a way that captured the fire’s footprint in the right places.

“This was a very, very dramatic season,” Maureen Dennehy, a professor of geosciences at Colorado State University who worked on the study, told People. “The number of fires is probably double what it normally would be.”

Climate change has historically caused less intense fires in states such as New Mexico, Dennehy noted. But now, there is less rain to keep the beetle from roasting pine trees.

Climate change scientists say conditions have become more severe this year because the price of water, which is important for the propagation of the bug, has increased.

“We’re seeing drought conditions now that were not supposed to come to California this year,” Mark Deibley, an economist with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told SFGate.

The models that humans built into this new study are partly because of lessons learned from previous years that climate change is a culprit in increased fire spread, Deibley told SFGate.

According to Professor Dennehy, the drought is also making the beetles healthier and making them more effective.

Dennehy said that although previous findings have pointed to worsening wildfire patterns in California, the report that paints a dim outlook for drought this year may not be the last.

“This year shows the dangerous impacts of climate change and the positive feedback loops we see,” she said. “You can’t simply think that this is a blip on the screen, because we’re seeing these impacts now, and if we don’t respond to the additional forest changes, we’re going to continue to see these effects.”

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