FACT CHECK: Did Climate Change Cause The California Wildfires?

Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporter

Prominent Democrats have linked the severe fires in California to climate change in recent days.

“With climate change, some scientists are saying that Southern California is literally burning up,” California Gov. Jerry Brown said during a press conference Saturday.

“The recent images & stories of the fires in California are alarming. If we don’t solve the climate crisis, these types of disasters will be increasingly common,” environmentalist Al Gore tweeted Tuesday.

“The California wildfires are still raging, but this year’s fire season has already burned more acres than the average of the last five years. Now is the time to discuss climate change,” California Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted Monday.

Verdict: False

Climatologists and wildfire experts believe the severity of recent fires in California are primarily due to naturally-occurring winds and population density in fire-prone areas. There’s no direct evidence that climate change played a role in these fires.

Fact Check:

The 2017 fire season in California continues to be one of the most severe in history. Fires in Northern California burned over 8,400 buildings in October and claimed the lives of at least 42 people.

Fires still rage in Southern California. The Thomas fire that started in early December has burned more than 250,000 acres and destroyed over 900 homes.

Democratic politicians and activists claim the intense fires are a symptom of climate change. But wildfire experts say climate change isn’t the primary factor in these disasters.

“The fires are mostly the result of unplanned or accidental human ignitions during high fire weather – hot, dry, windy conditions,” Chad Hanson, research ecologist and director of the John Muir Project, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email.

California’s strong, naturally-occurring winds are the main culprit. The Diablo winds in the North and Santa Ana winds in the South can reach hurricane force. As wind moves West over California mountains and down toward the coast, it compresses, warms and intensifies. The winds blow flames and carry embers, spreading the fire quickly before it can be contained.

“Those are naturally occurring. They’re common. And so you add that to very dry conditions, and a lot of vegetation, and the people, and you have a disaster,” Tim Brown, a climatology research professor at the Desert Research Institute, told TheDCNF.

Those who say climate change played a role in the California fires point to this year’s record-high temperatures and long droughts as evidence. Brown says warmer conditions due to climate change could lead to dryer vegetation that increases the potential for ignition and burning.

Some researchers note that climate change has been a significant factor in previous western fires in recent decades, and others predict that climate change will cause the land area burned in California fires to increase by at least 64 percent.

But there isn’t direct evidence that these particular fires in California were worse because of climate change. Some researchers maintain that climate change played no factor whatsoever. Other causes are more apparent and verifiable.

“Climate change influences just about everything, including fires, but it is not really possible to link particular fires this way,” said Hanson.

Policies to stop natural fires can make future fires worse when they leave forests with thick, dry undergrowth. Members of the Western Congressional Caucus say too much focus on fire suppression and not enough focus on fire prevention helps to explain the severity of fires in California and elsewhere.

Tanner Hanson, a spokesman for the caucus, told TheDCNF in an email that some politicians who link climate change to the fires also “plead ignorance to the question of whether forest thinning and clearing millions of dead, dry trees could have any effect on the intensity or duration of wildfires.”

While the Forest Service has spent a record $2.3 billion this year on battling fires, timber harvests have decreased 80 percent over the last 30 years, according to the caucus. The House passed a bill in November that would increase funding for preventative forest management practices like managed fire treatment and removal of dead trees.

A larger human footprint in fire-prone areas increases the risk residents will start fires. California’s population nearly doubled from 1970 to 2010, from about 20 million people to 39 million people.

Brown said that although the official cause of each recent California fire has yet to be determined, they are all considered human-caused because there was no lightening involved. The Los Angeles Fire Department found that the Skirball fire north of Bel Air was started by an illegal cooking fire in a homeless camp.

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Emily Larsen

Fact Check Reporter