The WIRED Guide to Climate Change
The world is getting warmer, the weather is getting worse. Here's everything you need to know about what humans can do to stop wrecking the planet.
But in the past century or so, land managers have taken the opposite approach: fire suppression, or immediately putting out anything that might encroach on residential areas. That’s allowed the buildup of dry vegetation —more fuel. And with more human communities living in the “wildland urban interface,” where the forest meets towns, people are also setting more accidental fires, whether they be from a cigarette butt thrown out a window or electrical infrastructure malfunctioning .This is part of the reason why fires are so much more catastrophic in California than in Kansas or Oklahoma: There’s just way more forest with way more accumulated fuel, and way more people living in harm’s way. To adapt, land managers in western states need to do more controlled burns, which will do the brush-clearing work that frequent, smaller wildfires used to do. Climate change has also forced some seemingly contradictory seasonal changes. Because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, the amount of precipitation may actually increase in the future, while the length of the wet season is shrinking. In California, rains typically arrive in October and last until March. Now they are coming later in the year. “The dry season will expand into the normal wet season,” says climate scientist Ruby Leung, of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “When we look at climate models projecting into the future, the fire season will become longer.”Firefighters are already seeing this happen. California used to get its biggest blazes in the autumn, right before the seasonal rains arrived, when the landscape was extra parched from half a year without water. This coincided with ferocious seasonal winds that would drive huge wildfires. But now because the rainy season is so short and the landscape has more of the year to dry out, fire season comes even earlier. “What we are seeing more consistently and more regularly is the fact that these fires are growing larger and larger, sooner than they typically would have in the past,” Issac Sanchez, battalion chief of communications for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told WIRED earlier this month . “So when August rolls around, late July rolls around, we're seeing these dry conditions that are absolutely a result of climate change.”