Recent fires a sign of Southern California’s future

December 14, 2017
Skirball Fire from Bel Air, Linda Flora. Fires like these will likely become more frequent in the Los Angeles region due to changes in climate patterns, UCLA climate experts say.
Judd Weiss;

A number of UCLA climate experts responded to recent Southern California wildfires with the same message – these events are a foreshadowing of conditions to come due to human-induced climate change. These researchers explained that the combination of an unusually wet winter last year with an unusually dry, warm summer and fall exacerbate fire risk. The wet winter prompts greater growth and accumulation of vegetative fuel that helps feed larger fires when it is hit with dry conditions the following summer and fall. Glen MacDonald, professor of geography said this is the likely future for Southern California.

These swings in opposite climatic conditions are expected to be more prominent based on global climate models, said Alex Hall, professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences. The swing into dry seasons allow Santa Ana winds to coincide with rainless stretches. Daniel Swain of UCLA’s Institute of Environment and Sustainability (IoES) detailed online how this problematic combination occurs. Santa Ana winds are expected to coincide with higher temperatures and lower humidity. Drier spring and fall seasons will increase the likelihood of Santa Ana winds happening during dry spells, which increases the severity of fires.

Aradhna Tripati, professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and earth, planetary and space sciences also said the problem will worsen, leading to major issues ranging from the more obvious loss of life and homes and worsened air quality to less obvious consequences such as housing and insurance issues.

The impacts of these wildfires also extend to water infrastructure and could affect water supply and treatment in the future. The Thomas fire shut down parts of water systems in Ventura County, increasing the chance of contamination, eliminating water treatment capabilities, and threatening supply. While some of these impacts did not reach the worst outcome, they showed how vulnerable water infrastructure is to major fires.

The recent burns north of Los Angeles County and next door to UCLA could be more frequent in the future, making adaptation and mitigation to climate-induced disasters like this an immediate concern. The Sustainable LA Grand Challenge is focused on identifying solutions to living in a hotter and dryer L.A. – from protecting the region’s infrastructure and ecosystems, to ensuring water security and meeting increasing energy needs.

Source: UCLA experts explain why California is burning in December UCLA Newsroom, 12 Dec 2017

Additional coverage: 

How much did climate change affect California’s wildfires? Depends on where you are Vox (Jon Keeley/Ecology & Evolutionary Biology)

California’s Future in the Age of Wildfires NPR’s “On Point” (Alex Hall/Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences)

Southern California is burning. Is climate change to blame? KPCC (Daniel Swain/Institute of Environment & Sustainability; Alex Hall/Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences)

As winds kick up again, tall flames menace communities far and wide LA Times (Daniel Swain/Institute of Environment & Sustainability)

What Are Santa Ana Winds? They’re Creating Devastating Fires In Southern California Bustle (Robert Fovell/Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences)

California gets whiplash of disasters this year CNN (Daniel Swain/Institute of Environment & Sustainability)

In California fires, a starring role for the wicked wind of the West Science (Daniel Swain/Institute of Environment & Sustainability; Alex Hall/Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences)

In a Warming California, A Future of More Fire NY Times (Alex Hall/Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences)

Southern California is Burning Vox (Glen MacDonald/Geography)

The Science of Santa Ana Winds Associated With Southern California Wildfires Forbes (Marilyn Raphael/Geography)

This post was written by Conor Cusack. He is a geography/ environmental studies major in his senior year, an outdoor enthusiast and a writer for Sustainable LA Grand Challenge.