The Science Behind California’s Fires

Brittany Hronich, Editor

In recent years, fires have ravaged through California with such ease, it’s almost as though one saturated their forests in lighter fluid. There are many unintentional or accidental causes for such fires. Examples include lightning strikes, downed power lines, or most recently, a gender reveal party. The concerning condition pertaining to the frequent fires in California that consistently plaster its image all over the country’s news platforms is that they rapidly escalate to a deadly severity. And that severity seems to worsen with each fire. California possesses the perfect conditions to invite a fire to spread across its map and give its people a preview as to what life on Mars will possibly look like. Or the apocalypse, whichever comes first. 

To answer this question as to what the stimulant for worsening fires could possibly be, science has revealed that climate change is the culprit of these conditions and their  horrific intensities.

Pictures of the fires ravaging through the west coast are inevitably inescapable, and while they accurately portray the current state of crisis, some facts always help to further put things into perspective. Particularly, the recent flames are one of the worst fires to combat California as a result of conditions that have intensified over the years. More land has been burnt in the fire’s most recent spread than the entirety of all the land burned in California in 2018. It also has surpassed double the amount burned in 2017. Continuing, the amount of land burned is greater than the size of Rhode Island. Out of the twenty largest fires to combat California, eight of them have ravaged through the state in the past ten years alone. Concurrently, climate change conditions have worsened in recent years as well. For example, out of all of the state’s hottest years on record, five of them have occurred in the past decade. Snow has melted months earlier than it traditionally has. The fire season in the American west has officially been prolonged by a staggering eighty four days since the 1970s. More than seventy percent of the land obliterated by forest fires occurring between 1970 and 2012 took place specifically in the years where snow melted earlier. Cal Fire (California’s fire protection service) has stated publicly that their organization longer considers there to be a wildfire season in California. Rather, because of events in recent years, they consider this ‘season’ to be the entire year.

As a result of climbing temperatures, rain and snow patterns have also altered. There has even been a change in plant communities as a result of earlier summer droughts which extends the season of heat and growth in forests in particular. As a result of these new conditions, there is lower soil moisture. As author Alejandra Borunda of National Geographic describes, this, “Lower soil moisture, in turn, can feed back into the local warming cycle and intensify it, since evaporating moisture usually takes up a lot of the energy the sun beams down. Where there’s no moisture left to evaporate, the soil or vegetation, dead and alive, absorbs that heat instead–feeding back into the drying-out process that increases fire risk.” Furthermore, as Jon Keeley, senior scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey Western Ecological Research Center states, in the past century California officials have had the wrong focus (although their intentions were still in the right place). These officials have been fixated with extinguishing existing fires rather than conducting controlled burns. As a result of the lack of controlled burns, dead vegetation has accumulated faster than ever as a result of hotter temperatures that have extended the period of time in which vegetation can grow. 

Although climate change has become a popular topic of discussion in recent years, it is nothing new. Climate change began in the Industrial Revolution about two hundred years ago when production skyrocketed and massive quantities of carbon dioxide bombarded the atmosphere because of fossil fuel emissions. Since then, global production has only increased, sending the temperatures to gradually escalate with each passing year. The predicament is that this long developing environmental, or more accurately, global crisis has been ignored both by high ranking officials and elite entrepreneurs whom regulate production and possess the power and access to enact a shift in the amount of emissions released in production. As civilians, even the most environmentally conscious individuals hardly have a dent on the predicament. Electric and eco-friendly cars are still manufactured in colossal factories that emit astonishing quantities of emissions. In recycling plants, entire loads are discarded as garbage if not all of the recyclable materials are completely clean. No matter how much one avoids meat, these farms continue to operate and let off drastic amounts of missions. 

The effects of these elite corporations is evident with the naked, uneducated eye. It is not difficult to see. There are dozens of instances in which the drastic consequences of climate change from large scale manufacturing have taken over the world stage, the fires in California only being the most recent. Fires will occur in this area inevitably. In addition, climate change and these fires are irrefutably correlated. If it weren’t for the conditions brought about by climate change, these fires wouldn’t have reached their scale and intensity. 


  • Lewis, Sophie “Wildfire Photos and Videos Show “Apocalyptic” Red and Orange Skies Across Western U.S.” CBS News September 10, 2020
  • Mulkern, Anne C. “Fast-Moving California Wildfires Boosted by Climate Change,” Scientific American August 24, 2020
  • Palley, Stuart “The Science Connecting Wildfires to Climate Change,” National Geographic September 17, 2020
  • “Wildfires & Climate Change,” California Air Resources Board