Dec 11, 2017
More than half a dozen wildfires are raging in Southern California, burning more than 120,000 acres, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and forcing 300,000 people to flee their homes. Firefighters are having difficulty containing the fires, which are being fanned by strong Santa Ana winds.
While scientists always caution against calling climate change the direct cause of any single weather event, including wildfires, researchers have strong evidence to show there has been a definite increasing trend in the weather patterns that create the conditions for wildfires to happen.
Higher temperatures dry out soil and vegetation, so that any spark can cause a forest to go up in flames. California commonly has wet cool winters and hot dry summers. But this pattern has become more extreme, with alternating years of drought and wetter periods.
California’s average temperature rose about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950. Scientists have shown that both extremely hot, dry years and extremely hot, wet years have become much more common in that time compared with earlier periods.
Recent weather patterns in California provided practically perfect conditions for both the current wildfires and those that took place earlier this year in Northern California’s wine country. Last year, California had a wet snowy winter. That precipitation provided just enough moisture to allow the growth of small vegetation, which then dried out and became tinder for the recent fires after another extremely hot, dry summer.
Periods of high winds are also quite common in California. The earlier Northern California winds were fanned by the Diablo winds, a regular occurrence like the Santa Ana winds contributing to the fires in Southern California. Both winds blow in the opposite direction of winds coming off the ocean, which makes them dry and adds to the fire danger.
But these winds are getting stronger. The Diablo winds during the wine country fires reached speeds of 79 miles per hour according to the National Weather Service. Scientists project that stronger Santa Ana winds will cause a 60 per cent increase in the number of wildfires in the Los Angeles region by mid-century. They also project non-wind-driven fires to increase by 80 per cent by that time due to hotter, drier summers.
Global warming is certainly not the only “man-made” cause contributing to these kinds of wildfires. Real estate developers add to the problem by building expensive homes for the wealthy high up in wooded areas, where there is nothing to break the high winds. Sparking downed power lines lead to some fires due to lack of maintenance by the energy companies. Failure to clear dried underbrush and preventing smaller naturally-occurring fires to protect expensive real estate developments do so as well. But all these conditions are greatly exacerbated by the weather extremes resulting from global warming.
In fact, none of these causes of more devastating wildfires are simply “man-made.” They are “capitalism-made,” particularly climate change, a product of the enormous increase in fossil-fuel-driven emissions taking place since the Industrial Revolution.
Stopping climate change, and its accompanying wildfires, will require an end to the profit-motive that drives the decisions made by the capitalist class and the politicians that work for it.