California’s “new climate” —UCLA scientists explain unprecedented fire season

August 8, 2018
Smoke rising off of the Mendocino Complex fire, the largest fire in state history.

With over 600,000 California acres scorched as of early August 2018 and 17 large fires still burning, UCLA researchers who have been conducting research on California wildfires, share their expertise in the media about this year’s unprecedented wildfire season. Selected information from these interviews is featured below.

Highlights from the Interviews:

Speaking with the LA Times, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain explained that the legacy of California’s long term drought, coupled with a rainy winter last year and high temperatures this summer, have created “explosively dry” conditions that predict more burning as the state heads into peak wildfire season this fall.

Speaking with the New York Times, Swain explained that rising global temperatures are exacerbating wildfire conditions – a risk that is unlikely to decrease given that temperatures continue to climb, creating a stark new reality for many western states.

Alex Hall, UCLA climate scientist and professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, told the New York Times that the sustained heat, as opposed to the individual record-high temperatures, is what is really alarming. While record high temperatures – for example, the 111 Fahrenheit temperature recently recorded on UCLA campus – create media buzz, the sustained elevated temperatures intensify wildfires. “The sustained heat is difficult to explain with the variability associated with weather,” said Hall. “It is a new climate,” he concluded.

In an op-ed published by The Guardian, researchers dub the “new climate” described by Hall as the “era of megafires.” Along with two associate professors from the University of Idaho, Crystal Kolden and John Abatzoglou, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain outlines several factors contributing to the rise of catastrophic fires including population growth, forest management, declining snow pack, and the “wildfire threat multiplier,” climate change. The three scientists warn that describing the state of California wildfires as the “new normal” could be misleading: “it would be a mistake to assume that the region has reached any semblance of a stable plateau. Instead, the likelihood of large, fast-moving, and dangerous wildfires will continue to increase in the coming decades.”

More about Related Research

Glen MacDonald, the John Muir Memorial Chair in Geography at UCLA, echoed Hall and Swain’s concerns that climate change is contributing to pervasive lengthy wildfires seasons in a segment of the KCRW radio show Press Play. MacDonald shared a study on global changes in fire weather that indicates a strong trend towards the types of weather that produces fires: “We are seeing in this state and globally increasingly warm temperatures… Fires burn when you have warm temperatures, you have low humidity, you have dry fuels.”

Several Sustainable LA Grand Challenge research projects seek to improve our understanding of these “climate whiplash” events, and how they will continue to impact California and Los Angeles in the upcoming decades. Research conducted by Hall, Swain, and David Neelin, a professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at UCLA, predicts that climate change will increase instances of extreme precipitation in Los Angeles, creating a challenge for the sustainability goal of transitioning Los Angeles to locally sourced water.

Another study —conducted by Glen MacDonald, UCLA John Muir Memorial Chair in Geography, Greg Okin and Tom Gillespie, professors at UCLA’s Department of Geography, Richard Ambrose, professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, and Phil Rundel, professor at UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology —uses lessons from the 2012-2015 drought to analyze how climate change may endanger energy infrastructure in the future. Renewable energy infrastructure often runs through wildland areas that are especially vulnerable to destructive climate events like wildfires and landslides.

Hotter, drier summers are becoming the new norm. Through their studies and expertise, UCLA researchers are examining how to reduce the harmful impacts of climate change such as this summer’s deadly fire season.

Additional Coverage:

California’s destructive summer brings blunt talk about climate change LA Times (Daniel Swain/Institute of Environment & Sustainability)
The era of megafires: the crisis facing California and what will happen next The Guardian (Daniel Swain/Institute of Environment & Sustainability)
Mendocino Complex fire racing at unprecedented speed into the record books LA Times (Daniel Swain/Institute of Environment & Sustainability)
California Today: Ferguson Fire Forces Largest Closing of Yosemite in Decades New York Times (Daniel Swain/Institute of Environment & Sustainability)
What’s Different About California’s Fires This Year? New York Times (Alex Hall/Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences)
Because of climate change, wildfires are inevitable. Who should be liable for the damage? KPCC (Sean Hecht/Emmett Institute of Climate Change and Environment)
President Trump is off the mark with water policy & fires MSNBC (Glen MacDonald/Geography)
Professor Glen MacDonald interviewed on KCRW’s Press Play about global wildfire season KCRW’s “Press Play” (Glen MacDonald/Geography)

This post was written by Chloe Zilliac. She is a fourth year history major, and a writer for the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge.