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A Climate Expert On How The California Wildfires Got This Bad

Photo by @RCKeller / iStock
October 13, 2017

One of the worst wildfires in California's history hit wine country on Sunday night. Over the last five days, upward of 20,000 people have been ordered to evacuate their homes, and at least 23 have been killed. Though the original source of the fire is unknown, it has spread quickly and unpredictably, escaping the grasp of thousands of deployed firefighters to hit nearly 200,000 acres throughout the state.

"We have had big fires in the past. This is one of the biggest, most serious, and it's not over," California governor Jerry Brown said at a news conference Wednesday.

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Early fall is typically peak wildfire season in California, due to the state's warm, dry conditions coming off summer. However, years of on-and-off drought have made the state's vegetation especially prone to fire, and extreme wind conditions are only making matters worse this time around.

Considering the barrage of extreme weather events that have made headlines lately—including Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, and the Mexico City earthquake, which all hit within one month—it's hard to imagine that this fire is just a coincidence. While global warming certainly wasn't the sole cause of the storms, many experts are saying it could have played a role in making it worse. Patrick Brown, Ph.D., a climate scientist who specializes in modeling data on temperature patterns, says we can't jump to any conclusions just yet, but there are a few things we know without a doubt:

"It is beyond any reasonable doubt that human burning of fossil fuels, and the associated release of carbon dioxide, has increased the surface air temperature of the globe and the temperature of California in particular. This increase in air temperature causes increased evaporation from soil and thus has a drying influence," he tells mbg.

Though these dry conditions don't account for the crazy winds the region is experiencing, they are enough to convince many scientists that human behavior is increasing the risk of wildfires in the American West and Alaska.

"There are detectable trends showing that fire incidence has increased significantly since the 1980s," Brown adds. "However, there is not a strong historical trend yet in the region where the current Northern California fires are located."

So while we can't say for certain that human activity played a role in this situation, it's certainly possible—if not probable. Let's all send our thoughts and best wishes to those in California this weekend and vow to use this (yet another) natural disaster as a reminder that if we expect the planet to take care of us, we need to take care of it, too.

To help victims of the California wildfires, you can donate to the American Red Cross, the Community Foundation of Sonoma County, or the Napa Valley Community Foundation. There is also GoFundMe page collecting donations to be distributed to local organizations and displaced families.

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Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.