Drought, increased temperatures and lower humidity to blame for loss of lives from California wildfires

While wildfires are not something new, higher than normal temperatures and decreased humidity over a prolonged period of time make them much more possible. California, one of the places hardest hit by the state’s devastating drought, is experiencing this, contributing to the recent loss of life from the Carr Fire in Shasta County.

Climate scientists agree that the cause of California’s shrinking water resources is climate change. Evidence indicates that California has experienced increased drought and reduced snowpack, which is necessary for the growth of its vital water-dependent almond and alfalfa industries.

Over the past 40 years, drought-related deaths in California have increased in frequency and severity by 68 percent. This statistic, together with an increase in wildfires, is tied directly to climate change.

The climate impacts from the Carr Fire have begun to reach regions of Southern California near Yosemite National Park. Power to power lines from the extensive utilities infrastructure in fire-prone areas in California have helped cause this devastating wildfire.

For example, La Niña was responsible for the now notorious “kissing fern” fire last year, leading to a higher risk of wildfire on the west side of San Francisco Bay. Yet this could all be prevented by reducing tree overgrowth, improving water quality and improving San Francisco Bay’s environmental conditions.

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According to the U.S. Forest Service, there is a strong correlation between higher temperatures and higher evaporation rates which results in less water available for the area to absorb from the atmosphere. This will result in a reduction in the snowpack, which has the added effect of reducing precipitation in the winter.

The Forest Service also warns of an increased risk of water-related floods, namely from debris flow caused by flash flooding in lakes, reservoirs and rivers.

Smoke from the recent fires in California is blowing to areas of Washington state, causing smoke exposure to the Deschutes National Forest and Black Butte National Forest and a possible increase in the rates of wildfires there. Residents living near the Columbia River warned of smoke from the Indian Creek fire and smoke from the Wright Valley/Soda Creek fire blowing into Washington state.

The smoke from the Carr Fire has also led to the premature death of three infants in Washington State.

Climate change is one of the strongest threats to the survival of California’s key aquifers and watersheds. An increase in both temperatures and precipitation will lead to an increased risk of drought and wildfires. These risks have already begun and will only grow worse.

Steve Atwater is a Principal and geologist at Inglis Consultants and an adjunct professor at Southern Oregon University. He specializes in groundwater management, aquifer monitoring and well monitoring and testing of surface water, oil and gas wells, storage wells and injection wells.

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