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Climate Crisis: Deadly and destructive fires increasing in the West

Camp Fire (Photos by John Linn)
Camp Fire (Photos by John Linn)
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2018 was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire season on record in California -- with just over 7,500 fires burning an area of close to 2 million acres.

In Nevada, 2018 included the largest fire in our state history -- the Martin Fire. A fire that burned 439,000 acres over a 30 day span.

So why are fires becoming increasingly dangerous?

Wildfires in the United States burn more than twice the area they did in 1970 and the average wildfire season is now 78 days longer.

Research shows there is a new element to wildfire season -- climate change -- that's turning simple fires into runaway trains of disaster.

Chris Anthony, South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief, has been with Cal Fire for 23 years and says he's never witnessed a fire season in California like the one he worked in 2018.

"What I've seen over the last couple decades is a shift in those fires more in the northern part of the state and um those fires are becoming a lot more aggressive and the resistance to control is much greater as well."

But climate change isn't just expanding the extend of wildfires into more northern territory, it's also expanding the season itself. Alex Hoon, an Incident Meteorologist with the NWS in Reno, says that could be concerning especially for northern Nevada.

"As fire season becomes longer -- This is one of the things that folks don't really understand -- They just think that fire season is getting longer. Well what happens is now is fire season is now extending into the Spring and into the Fall-- that's when we get our wind events -- our high wind events."

This is concerning because wind is critical component for fire explosiveness. Hoon has been working the weather desk for critical fires around the West for nearly a decade, and he says climate change is making his job harder. The excessive heat and extreme fire behavior has already begun to create fire weather patterns, like fire tornadoes.

Fire crews and first responders are now dealing with more uncertainty on the job than ever before.

It's not just warmer days, longer seasons, and expanded seasons.

Both Anthony and Hoon agree, warmer overnight temperatures are one of the biggest problems they see when facing fires.

Fire crews tend to get the best hold on fires in the overnight period when humidity drops, but with global warming, this window of opportunity is shrinking. Anthony says his crews are not seeing the humidity respond in a positive way like it has in the past. Hoon explains why this overnight time is so critical,

"So when the minimum temperature increases that means there are drier conditions overnight and that has a direct effect on the vegetation here on the valley floor and in the mountains surrounding creating a recipe for explosive fires."
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While climate change may be a global problem , Anthony explains there are some local solutions that can help our communities better adapt to this new normal of wildfire.

"It really starts at the community level and working with people so they really do their defensible space around their homes and then that's incumbent onto us. Then implement those fuels reduction projects in the wildland urban interface, which is those areas around the communities and then go further out into the landscape and do the forest health and reliance projects."
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