Was Trump Right About Cali Wildfires?

Scientists weigh in
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 17, 2018 3:35 PM CST
The Role of Climate Change
President Donald Trump tours Paradise, Calif., with Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, California Gov. Jerry Brown, Paradise Mayor Jody Jones and FEMA Administrator Brock Long, right, during a visit to a neighborhood impacted by the wildfires, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Paradise, Calif.   (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(Newser) – With President Trump blaming forest management for California wildfires, many wonder about the role of climate change—and scientists say it is a factor, National Geographic reports. While wildfires are normal in California, the state's fires have generally gotten larger since 2000 as hotter and drier years go on record. That means warmed air is drawing water from soils and plants, making shrubs, trees, and grasslands more likely to burn. The summer dry season is also getting longer, letting plants get drier. "We've been lengthening fire season by shortening the precipitation season, and we're warming throughout," says UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain. "That's essentially what’s enabled these recent fires to be so destructive, at times of the year when you wouldn't really expect them." For more, including Fox News' take:

  • Wet and dry: Climate change also brings high variations of rain and snowfall, making some years wet and others dry, per VOA News. That means more fire-starting growth some years, and drier growth other years—perfect for a wildfire.

  • Dying trees: Five Thirty-Eight adds another factor: tree die-off. Droughts and spreading bark-beetle populations are mentioned as culprits. Dead trees make good kindling.
  • Too many people: Another culprit is California's population growth around wilderness areas. Some say people should stop building homes in likely fire areas, and homes there should be toughened, but that's hard in a state with beautiful woodsy landscapes and a housing shortage, per Bloomberg.
  • Prescribed fires: While Trump blames "gross mismanagement of the forests," the Guardian notes that much of California's wildfire area is not forest. The Woolsey fire in Malibu is actually burning shrubs and grass. Up north, there is timber, grass, and brush. The "most effective tool" for managing wildfires is prescribed fires that "reduce the buildup of vegetation," says the paper.
  • Cutting power: California is trying other fire-prevention efforts amid the "harsh reality" of climate change, per Time. That included shuttering—and turning off power—in businesses and schools for some 60,000 people in mid-October during high winds, to keep dead trees from hitting power lines and sparking fires.
  • Volatile mix: Fox News sums up the climate issue this way: "...Whipping winds, high temperatures and drought that are characteristic of climate change stoke wildfires like those raging in Northern and Southern California."
Meanwhile, 83% of a famous California landscape was gutted by wildfire. (Read more climate change stories.)

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