California is headed toward another brutal wildfire season

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty

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A wildfire in Southern California grew to 1,325 acres on Sunday as roughly 1,000 Topanga Canyon residents had to be evacuated from their homes. Just like that, fire season has started again in California. As an extreme drought worsens across much of the state, 2021 is shaping up to be potentially another deadly year.

The state’s warm climate and lack of rainfall makes it especially prone to wildfires, but nature is not the only reason large parts of California are regularly set ablaze every summer. As Jeffrey Ball wrote for Mother Jones in 2019:

Today’s monster fires result largely from three human forces: taxpayer-funded fire suppression that has made the forest a tinderbox; policies that encourage construction in places that are clearly prone to burning; and climate change, which has worsened everything. 

That last point has become especially crucial as scientists have searched for ways to explain why the area covered by California’s summer wildfires are eight times larger than they were in 1972. “This climate-change connection is straightforward,” Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told the New York Times last year. “Warmer temperatures dry out fuels. In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark.”

The problem is only getting more dire. After a record year last year in which California fires burned an area “larger than the state of Connecticut,” scientists are expecting an even worse season this summer, continuing a trend of earlier starts to fire season. 

As Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist, explained to CNN last week: “A combination of factors—including short-term severe to extreme drought and long-term climate change—are in alignment for yet another year of exceptionally high risk across much of California’s potentially flammable landscapes.”