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Climate Change's Effect On The Wildfires In The West Coast


As the fires on the West Coast continue, environmental experts say, because of climate change, extreme weather events will only get worse in coming years. Simon Wang is a professor of climate dynamics at Utah State University, and he joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

SIMON WANG: Hello, Lulu. Good morning. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good morning. I just want to get your reaction to what we're seeing right now on the West Coast.

WANG: Unfortunately, it really fits what has been projected by - in all the climate data and model simulations over the past 10 years. The trend is getting more intense towards the spread and intensity of wildfires.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain why - because wildfire season is, you know, natural in some cases. What makes these current fires different?

WANG: So the wildfire season was defined because of the weather conditions are prone to sustained fires if ignited. And they used to be not as long as today - you know, used to be maybe four months, for example, in some areas. And then now it's almost like year-round.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it's that the fire season is prolonged, and that means that the intensity of the fires will also get worse.

WANG: What really makes a large-scale fire, no matter how they are triggered, is the fire weather and then also the fuel. And the fuel means, like, the forest that becomes very easy to burn and very easy to spread. And the weather conditions - you know, they come from really the basic factors, like the temperature, humidity and winds. So, you know, all these three conditions - they come together and make the fire to be easily spread. And now that - with the lengthening of the fire season and the worsening intensification of the fire season, it really can only mean that, when we have a fire, the fire's going to grow bigger than before.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You say that this is meeting the serious projections that had been made, although it seems to have caught some people by surprise. How does it compare to the projections that were being made five to 10 years ago? Did we think we'd be where we are now?

WANG: It's almost safe to say that the climate model projections underestimate how severe the fire intensity would become, you know, 10 years ago. So we are seeing a trend that is in the same direction as projected, but more severe in many ways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to broaden the lens here because we've been seeing extreme weather in other forms. There was a wave of windstorms in Iowa, hurricanes devastating Texas and Puerto Rico in the past years, the earliest snowstorm on record in Colorado just a few days ago after a heat wave has destroyed crops there. There are five storms in the Atlantic right now, which is a record. How does that tie into what we're seeing?

WANG: During the time of the year when this region is prone to storms, like spring storms or summer storms, then, you know, a warming climate tend to boost it when it happens. It may not trigger it, but once it is triggered, the storms tend to grow bigger and more severe. Places you see like the Texas or - during summertime or California - and they tend to be dry in summer, and a warming climate will only make it hotter and drier. So then that goes to the drought direction.

So that's why, you know, over the course of the whole year in different regions, you're going to see these boosted seasonalities (ph) - you know, wintertime, the storms getting stronger; summertime, summer storms getting stronger, too. So it's actually all coming to the same framework.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How important is the federal government's leadership on this issue as opposed to local and state governments? So looking at the fires specifically, what does California, say, need to do differently? And then how can the federal government help or hinder their response?

WANG: It's a much broader issue than really a climate scientist can say. But it's just like the pandemic here. Everything happens, and then you affect all spectrums throughout the economy. So I think the federal government - the first - very first thing they need to do is listen. I take an example in Utah here. You know, the ski industry - they see firsthand that - you know, how a warming climate will change the ski industry. And then they appeal - they talk to the government, and the government listened. So it's really a two-way approach here.

I think the problem right now is that some industries have a louder voice than others. But I think that if everyday citizen has the same understanding of what the core issue is, then I think people's voice will end up being synchronized, and then the policy will then apply to benefit everyone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Simon Wang is a professor of climate dynamics at Utah State University.

Thank you very much.

WANG: Thank you, Lulu. It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.