The northern Sacramento Valley was well on its way to recording the hottest July on record when the Carr fire swept into town Thursday (July 26), according to the Los Angeles Times.
The destruction adds to California’s worst wildfire year on record — dozens dead since October, with more than 10,000 structures lost from San Diego to Redding.
There are many reasons for the grim totals, but experts say one common denominator connects the disastrous fires: California is facing extreme heat, the likes of which it has never seen in the modern historical record.
“The temperatures have just been almost inexorably warmer all the time,” said UCLA Climate Scientist Daniel Swain, and fires “burn more intensely if the fuels are extremely dry.”
In the past, there has been some reluctance among scientists to cite climate change as a major factor in California’s worsening wildfires. Human-caused ignitions and homes being built ever closer to forests have played a large role. But the connection between rising temperatures in California and tinder-dry vegetation is becoming impossible to ignore, according to experts who study climate and wildfires.
“The regional temperatures in the western U.S. have increased by 2 degrees since the 1970s,” said Jennifer Balch, director of Earth Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “You’re seeing the effect of climate change.”
Neil Lareau, assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno, said unusual warmth is now routine, and that heat “leads to drying things out quicker.”
Vegetation can have various degrees of dryness — a wet log in the woods could smolder before puttering out, while tinder-dry chaparral on a 110-degree day could explode when ignited, Swain said. Extremely flammable vegetation can create a particularly intense fire with the potential to grow much faster — leaving less time for firefighters to get a handle on a blaze and for people to escape.
“What that means is the fire has to do less work to ignite the vegetation right next to it. And it can spread faster, and it releases energy more quickly,” Lareau said.
The Carr fire is the most destructive of 17 major blazes burning amid the current hot conditions. Fires in Mendocino County, in the San Jacinto Mountains and near Yosemite National Park exploded in the last few days, eating through dry wildlands. Authorities said they hope to gain more control over the Carr fire as temperatures gradually cool this week.
Swain said California is seeing more fires spreading much faster than what was customary. “It’s just that much easier for fires to escape initial control,” he said.
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