Did Climate Change Worsen the Southern California Fires?

Massive wildfires are raging across Southern California, threatening thousands of homes and cultural landmarks like the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Some of the largest fires were still barely contained by Wednesday afternoon.

It’s been an unusually bad year for the state—amid an unusually bad year for the West at large. Fires in California have destroyed more than 6,000 structures and incinerated hundreds of thousands of acres. Montana and British Columbia both also had some of their worst wildfire seasons ever.

Of course, most years are bad wildfire years now. Seven of California’s 10 largest modern wildfires have occurred in the last 14 years. (The state began keeping reliable records in 1932.) Given the scale of the blazes, and their increasing regularity, it makes sense to ask: Does global warming have anything to do with this?

The answer isn’t as clear-cut as it was this summer, when drought- and heat-stoked fires raged across the Rockies and Pacific Northwest. Instead, a mix of forces are driving the fires in Southern California, and only some of them have a clear connection to global warming.

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“These fires are not immediately emblematic of climate change,” said John Abatzoglou, an associate professor of geography and climate at the University of Idaho, in an email. “Yes, California did have the warmest summer on record. But the big anomaly here is the delay in the onset of precipitation for the southland that has kept the vegetation dry and fire-prone.”

In other words, late-fall and winter rains would normally end California’s fire season in November. Because those rains haven’t yet arrived, the blazes continue.

“At least in Southern California right now, we are largely seeing textbook wildfires,” said Alexandra Syphard, a senior research scientist at the Conservation Biology Institute who studies fires. “Wind-driven fire events occur most typically in the fall, but can also…

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