Has Climate Change Caused the Californian Wildfires?

Otis Fischer

California is no stranger to drought, having regularly experienced it for over a thousand years. This is a simple fact of its location and climate. However, in the past few years, the general frequency and severity of its droughts have increased. Over the last seven years, California has experienced more major and minor droughts. While there has been extreme drought activity in the past, it has become more extreme and more clustered in recent years (as seen in the chart). The drought causes a deluge of negative effects to rain upon California, but perhaps the most horrific is the wildfires.

Currently, California is feeling the effects of La Niña, which has made the region hotter and drier. This simply exacerbates the wildfires that normally rage within the state. The recent drought along with the effects of La Niña has culminated in some of the worst wildfires California has ever experienced. Five out of the six largest wildfires in recorded history have been in the past two months, culminating in 2.2 million acres of land being burned so far, 22 deaths, and 4.4 thousand structures demolished. However, the scariest part of this is the fact that the wildfires are still spreading. The damage and range of these fires have been historic, however, they are part of a trend.

Not only has this year been monumental in regards to the amount and severity of wildfires but past years as well. Out of the top 20 biggest wildfires in recorded history, 17 of them were in the past 20 years.

The growing number of severe wildfires points to climate change - indeed, it correlates with it directly. However, it is prudent to stay open to new information and not jump to conclusions. An overlooked benefit is that Californian redwood forests need forest fires to some extent as conifers use fires to reproduce. However, the fact that the level of drought has increased needs to be considered when deciding if climate change has caused an increase in wildfires.