Two graphs that explain why California wildfires will only get worse

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By Molly Taft

The deadly wildfires that ripped through Northern California this month are just the latest in a season of record-defying natural disasters in the United States. As the death toll passed 40, reports of Californians hiding in pools as their houses burn and scenes of devastated homes and vineyards added to 2017’s apocalyptic picture of how climate change is impacting America today.

Drier and drier conditions and creeping temperatures in the American Southwest, definitively linked to climate change, serve to create tinderbox conditions for massive, catastrophic fires to explode. Experts agree the state can expect devastating fires like the ones in Napa to become the new normal, even though California is one of the states leading the way on climate action.

A quick look at two sets of data shows exactly how climate change has impacted California’s susceptibility to wildfires — and what the state can expect as the planet continues to warm.

The past 10 years have been among the hottest years on record. It’s no coincidence that — as seen below — 13 of California’s largest 20 fires by acreage burned have occurred since 2000, and 10 of those in the past decade. According to NOAA, 2014, 2015, and 2016 are the third, second, and first hottest years on record to date, and each of these years hosted its own record-breaking fire in the state.

13 of California's largest wildfires burned since 2000. CREDIT: Climate Signals
13 of California’s largest wildfires burned since 2000. CREDIT: Climate Signals

It’s worth noting that this graphic only covers fires through 2016. The fires in Napa have burned more than 240,000 acres — surpassing all but three of the fires on this infographic.

And, as fires get larger and more destructive, California should expect to pay a heavier cost.

Rising cost of fighting wildfires. CREDIT: Climate Signals
Rising cost of fighting wildfires. CREDIT: Climate Signals

The Napa fires have destroyed more than 6,700 homes and businesses in northern California and displaced 100,000 people. Tens of thousands of firefighters were deployed.

The destruction from these fires is part of a growing trend. As the data in this graph show, the costs of fighting fire in California has skyrocketed over the past 30 years. Dried-out landscapes are fueling more intense, long-lasting and destructive fires, while warmer springs and autumns are extending the fire season, allowing more and more damage to occur. Urban and suburban sprawl into wildland areas prone to fire only increases the risk posed to homes and businesses. A 2013 study found that almost 25 percent of homes in California are at high or extreme risk from wildfires — the highest percentage in the country.

On October 10, two days after the Napa fires began, the Trump administration announced it would repeal the Clean Power Plan — the Obama administration’s signature piece of climate legislation. As extreme weather events become more and more severe and states spend more to contain climate catastrophes, it remains to be seen what will convince those deniers in charge to move towards solutions.

Molly Taft writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, politics, art and culture. You can follow her at @mollytaft.

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