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Guest Editorial: Study confirms California’s worst wildfire fears

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

This editorial is from the San Jose Mercury News:

A new study from the respected National Academy of Sciences confirms our worst fears about California’s increasingly deadly wildfires.

Climate change — and not natural climate variability — is now the primary driver of wildfire risk and will likely continue to plague California and other Western states in the future.

“This change,” the authors conclude, “requires urgent and effective societal adaption and mitigation responses.”

The study should put to rest the argument that California’s weather simply goes through cycles and that the state will experience a return to normal conditions in the years ahead.

The recent “bomb cyclone” bringing heavy rains to California thankfully seems to have pretty much ended the state’s wildfire season. But the growing destruction from wildfires is undeniable.

The researchers discovered that the average warm season burned area in the Western states from 1984 to 2000 was 1.69 million acres. But that number jumped to 3.35 million acres between 2001 to 2018.

This year California has endured what is now the second-worst wildfire season in state history, having burned 2.5 million acres in the state this year. That includes the Dixie fire, which burned nearly 1 million acres over a three-month period, destroying at least 1,329 structures, including more than 700 homes and most of the town of Greenville.

The state endured its worst wildfire season in 2020, when more than 4 million acres burned, killing 31 people. The third worst wildfire season in California history was in 2018, when 1.8 million acres burned. That’s right. In the last four years, California has endured three of the worst fire seasons in state history.

The researchers focused their study on “vapor pressure deficit,” the leading meteorological variable that controls wildfires. In layman’s terms, vapor pressure deficit “basically describes how thirsty the atmosphere is,” Rong Fu, one of the study’s authors, told the Los Angeles Times. Fu, a UCLA climate researcher, studied the variation in atmospheric circulation from 1979 to 2020.

The study revealed significant increases in vapor pressure deficit, indicating that global warming was responsible for 66.7% to 88% of the conditions creating worse wildfire conditions.

California spent $3 billion on wildfires last year, but the vast majority of that went to fighting fires rather than preventing them.

In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a $15 billion package to fight climate change that includes $1.5 billion for wildfire response and forest resilience. The package is a move in the right direction, but it’s important to remember that the state only owns 3% of California’s 33 million acres of forest. The federal government owns 58% of the forest land in the state, and 39% is owned by private landowners.

It’s critical that Congress pass meaningful climate change legislation and commit to help reduce the threat of wildfires. Private landowners must do their part to clear areas near homes and structures that fuel wildfires. And PG&E must stop failing to meet its tree trimming and safety goals that caused some of the worst fires in state history. The utility pleaded guilty in 2020 to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter for causing the deadly 2018 Camp fire, which burned the town of Paradise. And it admitted this summer that a falling tree is likely responsible for the Dixie fire.

Californians have no time to lose if they want to stop the current trend from getting even worse.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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