The Rim Fire and climate change

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The monstrous blaze that swept through Yosemite and burned 237,841 acres was a record breaker. According to the latest statistics from Cal Fire, the Rim Fire was the fourth highest in the history of California, with a $77 million price tag. Thanks to the efforts of more than 4,000 firefighters and support personnel, the blaze was 80 percent contained as of the latest update on Sept. 4.

While the exact cause remains a mystery for now, it’s worth pointing out that the Rim Fire could not have reached such epic proportions if it hadn’t been for the dry conditions in place when the smoldering began. And as climate change continues to alter weather patterns across the Western United States, projected declines in precipitation and higher average temperatures will lead to more of the same conditions that give rise to hot destructive infernos.

Daniel Berlant, an information officer with Cal Fire, noted in a recent telephone interview that summers have been longer and hotter over the past decade, a trend that has coincided with a spike in wildfires.

According to Cal Fire statistics, there were 5,135 fires in California from January 1 through August 31 of this year. Over the same time span last year, there were 3,731 fires recorded. The five-year average is even lower, at 3,638.

Another troubling statistic: Seven out of the 10 largest wildfires in California history occurred in the last decade alone.

“What we’ve been seeing here in this past decade is longer summers – seven to eight days longer than normal,” Berlant explained. “There’s a correlation between a longer summer and more wildfires,” he continued, and when rainfall finally does arrive, it comes in at record lows, Berlant explained. Meanwhile, “The high temperatures evaporate more of the rain.”

Brush and vegetation that take in moisture from rainfall have a better chance at withstanding a fiery blaze, Berlant noted, but when things stay bone dry, the plants act as kindling that causes the blaze to burn hotter.

So as climate change continues to transform the natural landscapes of the West, costly raging wildfires might be what Californians have to look forward to. Find that depressing? Here’s a captivating YouTube time-lapse video to distract you.

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