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How Climate Change Is Affecting Wildfires — And What You Can Do About It

Firefighters monitor a backfire while battling the Ranch Fire, part of the Mendocino Complex Fire, on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018, near Ladoga, Calif. (Noah Berger/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Firefighters monitor a backfire while battling the Ranch Fire, part of the Mendocino Complex Fire, on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018, near Ladoga, Calif. (Noah Berger/AP)

Californians are currently in the midst of the largest wildfire to ever hit the state, along with at least 17 other fires actively raging. There have been bad blazes elsewhere across Western U.S. states, as well as in Greece and Scandinavia. And record heat waves have recently swept across Japan and the U.K.

It's been a summer of extreme weather events. And, according to Penn State professor of atmospheric science Michael Mann, they're trying to tell us something.

"This may be the summer where human-caused climate change showed its hand," Mann told On Point host Eric Westervelt (@Ericnpr). "We've seen the enemy, and it is human-caused climate change."

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In the case of California, this comes in the form of more frequent wildfires occurring earlier than usual.

"Unfortunately it seems like every single year we keep on getting these fires that hit the record books," said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire. "It's become the new norm, to have these type of fires burning at this intensity, this severity, and earlier in the year. And it really is a result of our changing climate here in California. Our summers are longer, our fire seasons have now become longer. And as a result, fire conditions become more intense and more severe."

Berlant says the last couple of months have been "nonstop, fire to fire." Seventeen other states have sent resources to help fight the fires, with firefighters from as far as New Zealand providing support.

"I definitely don't think the situation is being hyped up,"said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, area fire adviser with the University of California's Cooperative Extension. "I’m sitting here in Ukiah and there’s a thick blanket of smoke. I think everyone can kind of feel the tension around the ranch fire in the Mendocino Complex."

What You Can Do About Wildfire Prevention

Quinn-Davidson laid out the things we can do at the home level to address fire risk as they become more of the norm.

"Water strategies could be one of those, but I think there are a lot of other things that we don't often think about that actually end up being the key reasons why homes burn," she said. "How many people are out there checking their gutters and making sure that there aren't leaves stacking up in them? Thinking about the vents on their attics and also having a wooden deck with things piled under it. When I work with landowners and homeowners, I encourage people to start looking at those things. A lot of homes burn not from a flaming front coming through, but from embers landing, like I said, in the gutter or on the edge of the roof."

Controlled burns are another larger-scale effort that could help decrease the risk of wildfire destruction by reducing fuel, restoring fire regimes and protecting certain areas.

"I think prescribed fire or controlled burning, the use of fire as a tool, is something that we're going to be looking to more and more," Quinn-Davidson said.

The Underlying Issue

As Mann says, though, preparing for and preventing damage from extreme weather events requires more than minimizing risk at the individual or even community level. It's a global issue.

"There's no question that we do have to adapt to this changing environment," Mann says. "But if we don't act on the underlying problem that is aggravating these wildfires, which is human-caused climate change, then there is no 'new normal.' I don't think that's useful framing, to call this a new normal, because it will continue to get worse if we don't act on the underlying problem, which is our burning of fossil fuels and the generation of carbon pollution in the atmosphere that's warming the planet. So we have to solve this problem at its root."

Mann says "there's a hierarchy of ways that we can act on this problem."

"There's a lot that we can do at the personal level, individual actions, changing our lifestyles in ways that make us healthier and save us money and often reduce our carbon emissions," he said. "And we should do all those things.

"As our former presidential science adviser, good friend of mine John Holdren, said some years ago, how we respond to these problems is going to be a combination of three things: adaptation, adapting to those changes we can no longer prevent; mitigation, preventing those changes we still can; and, finally, suffering. And I think we all can agree, we want to minimize that third option. And that means those other two options, we've really got to put them on the table and act now."

California will continue to watch and respond to these extreme weather events — especially, according to Berlant, as the height of the fire season might still be ahead of us.

"It's typically actually the fall months — September, October — that's historically when we experience our largest number of damaging fires," he said. "Unfortunately the worst could potentially be yet to come."


Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the California city of Ukiah.

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Alex Schroeder Twitter Digital Producer, On Point
Alex Schroeder is a digital producer for On Point.

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