Why Wildfire Seasons Are Seemingly Getting Worse

Sean Breslin
Published: October 12, 2017

In just a few days' time, Northern California residents have witnessed an explosion of wildfires that erupted into a full-blown disaster, and it didn't take long at all.

Wineries that stood for decades in Napa Valley were charred and reduced to rubble. More than 30 people died, and some evacuees remarked that they had mere seconds to pack up and flee the fires that advanced on their homes.

If it seems like wildfire seasons are getting worse, there's a reason for that: they are.

(MORE: The Latest on the Northern California Wildfires)

Two women sort through the rubble of a property in Napa, California, on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017.
(Ray Chavez/San Jose Mercury News via AP)

Study after study after study has shown wildfire seasons are stretching longer and growing more intense, and global warming is one culprit. It's leading to longer, more extreme droughts that dry the land. When the wet season finally arrives, it allows vegetation to bloom. But when the rain goes away and those plants dry out, there's plenty of fuel to allow fires to turn into conflagrations in a matter of hours, in some instances.

"We've always seen pendulums," Eric Sagara, a journalist who has covered numerous wildfires, told Mother Jones. "But the dry periods are getting drier, and wet seasons are getting wetter. During the wet period, plants flourish. Then the dry period comes and dries everything out."

In the case of this week's Northern California wildfires, there are other factors at play. According to Earther, urban sprawl has put more people in wildfire-prone areas, living on the border between the wildlands and the city. That means more opportunities for a cigarette butt to spark an inferno, and more power lines that could cause a catastrophe if they fall.

In the big picture, as average global temperatures skew warmer and warmer, it also provides more time for plants and soil to dry out, which makes wildfire season longer, Mother Jones also said. So even after the wettest rainy season ever recorded in parts of Northern California, once the heat came back, there was still plenty of time to create ideal conditions for explosive wildfires to develop.

And for all facets of these worsening wildfire seasons, we have nobody to blame but ourselves, according to Mike Davis, a journalist who frequently covers topics like fire and the ways land is developed in California.

"Climate change is so dangerous because we've put billions of people and trillions of dollars of property directly into harm’s way," Davis told Mother Jones. "What we're seeing now is the lineage of bad decisions coming around, biting us, and threatening to devour us."

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

Featured Blogs

Meteorology of Saturday's Colombian Flood Disaster That Killed 254

By Dr. Jeff Masters
April 3, 2017

At least 254 people were killed in the in the city of Mocoa (population 40,000) in southwest Colombia near the border of Ecuador early Saturday, when torrential rains triggered a debris flow on a nearby mountain that surged into the town as a huge wall of water carrying tons of mud and debris. The disaster is the fourth deadliest weather-related disaster in Colombia’s recorded history.

Iconic American Destination Virtually Isolated for Rest of Year

By Christopher C. Burt
March 24, 2017

Half of the village of Big Sur, on the coast of central California, has lost its only access to the north following the demolition of the flood-damaged Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge along State Route 1 (also Rt. 1 or SR 1) on March 19. Although Rt. 1 to the south of Big Sur has reopened to traffic (after mud and rock slides were cleared) it is a long 70-mile journey along the windy but spectacular highway to Cambria, the next town of any significance where supplies can be had. CalTrans (California Department of Transportation) estimates it will take 6-9 months to rebuild a new bridge over the canyon.

An extraordinary meteorological event; was one of its results a 1000-year flood?

By Stu Ostro
October 5, 2015

The confluence of meteorological ingredients the first weekend in October 2015 resulted in an extraordinary weather event with severe impacts. Was one of them a 1000-year flood?

Why the Arrest of a Science-Loving 14-year-old Matters

By Shaun Tanner
September 16, 2015

By now, many of you have heard or read about the arrest of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old high school student from Irving, Texas. Ahmed was arrested because school officials called the police after he showed one of his teachers his homemade clock. Mistaken for a bomb, Ahmed was taken into custody, interrogated, shamed, suspended (still on suspension today, Wednesday), and reprimanded. All of this after it has been found that the "device" he brought to school was indeed, a homemade clock.