Climate change and California fires

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Thursday the 29th of November, 2018. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up, climate change and deadly wildfires.

The recent fires in California have been devastating. The Camp Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed more than 80 people. Hundreds of others are still missing.

EICHER: Mere days after the town of Paradise burned to the ground, California Governor Jerry Brown said this is the new normal. He blamed climate change brought on by fossil fuel emissions.

He contends man-made conditions lead to these kinds of fires. But what’s the evidence for it?

REICHARD: Julie Borg is a science reporter for WORLD. She’s written about this in her weekly WORLD Digital Roundup called Beginnings. She’s here now to talk about it.

Julie, those fires really seem to add credence to arguments that global warming is the reason. But you cite contrary evidence. What is it?

JULIE BORG, REPORTER: Yes, there are many experts who disagree that global warming is responsible for these fires. For example, a geologist named Gregory Wrightstone, wrote a blog piece related to the fires in California. In it, he points to two different studies that show wildfires are happening less often, not more. In fact, the studies show there has been a 50 percent decrease in wildfires over the past three decades. That includes California.

REICHARD: But wasn’t the recent Camp Fire in Northern California the state’s deadliest on record? I know that correlation doesn’t prove causation, but some would see global warming setting the stage for more destructive fires.

BORG: Yes, officials do say the Camp Fire was the deadliest wildfire in state history. But Wrightstone says lots of factors are behind that. Things that have nothing to do with warming temperatures. For one thing, more people live in the areas at high risk for fire now. To give you an idea about the numbers: a fire scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey named Jon Keeley studied fire patterns over the past 100 years. And he found that in 1940, a little over 600,000 homes were in fire-prone areas in the western United States. By 2010? Over 6-and-a-half million homes in the same areas.

REICHARD: Would you say then that more people in these high-risk areas necessarily increases the risk of fires?

BORG: It does. Think what humans bring with them: electric utility lines, vehicles and motorized equipment, smoking campfires and unfortunately arson. All that multiplied as more people inhabit an area. In fact Keeley found that 95 percent of all wildfires are started by human activities.

REICHARD: President Trump tweeted earlier this month that we need better forest management. That could prevent some of the loss of life and property that results from wildfires. True or false?

BORG: That is true, according to both Wrightstone and Keeley. They say when we suppress low intensity fires, controlled burns, and limit logging, those government policies have actually increased the potential for bigger, more deadly blazes.

Just to focus on California, in the mid 1800s the landscape there was open fields of grass with standing oak and pine trees. Then in the 1960s, the government started to limit logging, and it tried to prevent low intensity fires, which serve to clear out the natural fuel of leaves and fallen limbs in forests that otherwise serve to provide fuel for bigger fires. Then in 1994, the Clinton administration increased regulations to protect spotted owls and old growth forests. So all those policies created very dense forest growth. When trees are close together like that, it not only provides ample fuel for fires, but it also promotes bark beetles, insects that kill trees. And of course, dead dry wood makes great kindling. The dense growth and the dead wood have combined to create a situation where a tiny spark can quickly blaze into a deadly fire.

REICHARD: Julie Borg is a WORLD correspondent based in Ohio and writes a weekly WORLD Digital roundup called Beginnings. Julie thanks!

BORG: You’re welcome.

(AP Photo/Kathleen Ronayne) After a brief delay to let a downpour pass, volunteers resume their search for human remains at a mobile home park in Paradise, Calif., Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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