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Climate Change May Lead To More Record Heat And Fires In California, Experts Warn

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A blistering heat wave is breaking records from Texas to Washington State. California, where I am, may have seen the hottest temperature measured reliably anywhere on earth, 130 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley. The heat has caused rolling power blackouts across the state and contributed to dozens of wildfires. In parts of California, police are going door to door urging residents to evacuate. Here's Fire Incident Commander Chief Sean Kavanaugh.

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SEAN KAVANAUGH: We're in this for a long haul. So these communities down here and the counties that we're in over the last few years have all been impacted heavily with fires. Communities have - there have been tragic incidents down here not only with loss of life, but also with the loss of infrastructure and homes.

CHANG: Joining us to talk about the fires and their connection to climate change is KQED reporter Kevin Stark and NPR's Nathan Rott, who covers the environment and climate change. Hey to both of you.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey.

KEVIN STARK, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: Kevin, I want to start with you. You're in Vacaville, near one of the largest fires in California right now. What does it even look like where you are at this moment?

STARK: Well, it's really a perfect storm of events. You know, big fires are now burning all around the Bay Area. There are fires in every county except for San Francisco, which, you know, is, of course, mostly urbanized. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the peninsula region near Santa Cruz, where I am, wine country region. You know, this is Napa and the North Bay. There is a big fire here that is spreading across ranchland, it's pressing up against vineyards, and it's unfortunately begun to burn some buildings. You know, with big fires, that means a lot of smoke.

I drove up this morning from San Francisco, and I could just see these tall columns, kind of purple smoke settling in around the region. So the air quality here is not good. And fire officials are now prepping people to prepare for more evacuations today. It's really hot. And the forecast is showing strong winds that are going to come in this afternoon, which could only exacerbate the fires that are already going.

CHANG: Incredible. I mean, how is this happening now? Because doesn't California usually get these kinds of big explosive fires later in the year?

STARK: Yeah, that's exactly right, especially here in Northern California. Our biggest fires typically come in the fall. It's when we get, you know, big coastal winds that pick up. It's before the rainy season. But we're now I think six days into this oppressive heat wave that's just baked the state.

CHANG: Yeah.

STARK: And on Monday and Tuesday, we had thunderstorms, kind of unprecedented lightning and thunderstorms, roll through. And that - the dry lightning was striking just across the Bay Area. Official today said that it sparked something like 60 fires just in...

CHANG: Wow.

STARK: ...The Bay Area region. Firefighters were able to get on top of most of those. But yesterday, we had some winds pick up towards the end of the day, and it really got under these, you know, three fires.

CHANG: Nate, let's turn to you now. I mean, you cover the environment. You cover climate change. Are we basically seeing climate change in action here?

ROTT: So I'm going to answer that by saying, yes, probably.

CHANG: OK (laughter).

ROTT: And I say probably because attribution science is really complicated. You know, it's rare that we can definitively say that this specific fire or hurricane was directly caused by climate change. That's because these sort of extreme events are a confluence of, you know, a number of different ingredients. So in the case of these fires, it was the record-breaking heat that Kevin just talked about, very dry vegetation and then the lightning.

CHANG: Right.

ROTT: I talked about all of those factors with Noah Diffenbaugh, an Earth scientist at Stanford University, earlier today, who was actually sheltering in place on campus because of the fires. And here's what he had to say.

NOAH DIFFENBAUGH: The lightning is what is the proximal cause of these wildfires. And, you know, I think we don't have evidence that global warming caused the lightning. But global - you know, we have strong evidence that global warming put runners on base.

ROTT: And so that by means - he means, you know, we do know that global warming is increasing the odds of extreme heat events, like the kind, you know, that's broiling a good chunk of the West right now.

CHANG: Right.

ROTT: We do know that climate change increases the odds of vegetation - you know, the trees, brush, grass are dry and ready to burn. So climate change's fingerprints are kind of all over these extreme fires, even if we can't say it's the cause.

CHANG: OK. So presumably the problem's only going to get worse as the climate gets hotter and hotter - right?

ROTT: Unfortunately, yes. There's a whole lot of research showing that climate change is going to make the conditions for extreme fire far more likely in the future, you know, not just here in the U.S., but around the world, so more fires burning at greater intensity in more places than ever before. You know, think about the fires that are also currently burning in Siberia. And it's not just because we're getting these kind of crazy record-breaking hot days, it's that nights are getting hotter, too.

So fires are more active at night. And that has big repercussions for human health, whether you're in a city or on the fire line because it's harder to cool off. And I know that, you know, all of this kind of sounds very gloomy and doomy, especially during a pretty gloomy and doomy time with the pandemic. So I think it's important to say that we're not powerless here. You know, fires are always going to happen, but we can minimize these climate effects by slowing global warming. And we can do that by cutting our greenhouse gas emissions.

CHANG: Right. OK. Well, Kevin, I want to turn back to you. In the immediate future, do you have any sense of how long it may take to contain all these fires in California this week?

STARK: Yeah, that's a great question. Yeah, it could be a little while. You know, today, fire officials are focused on keeping people and homes safe. They say that's their priority. I don't think they can expect to make much progress on containment because we have these strong winds that are coming in. The long-term forecast - it doesn't look great. You know, we could be, you know, beginning of September until things really turn. That said, I think we're going to get some cooler weather towards the end of the week. That might be able to help them get their arms around some of these fires. I should say on top of this, because we have fires burning across the state, the firefighters are just stretched really thin in terms of...

CHANG: Yeah.

STARK: ...People and also...

CHANG: Absolutely.

STARK: ...You know, the planes that they use to contain some of these fires. It's also projected to be a...

CHANG: OK.

STARK: ...Really hot fall.

CHANG: Right. Exactly. That is Kevin Stark of member station KQED and NPR's Nate Rott. Thanks to both of you.

ROTT: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.