California wildfires are bad. Climate change will make them even worse, new study says

As bad as wildfires have been in Northern and Central California in recent years, another new study shows that climate change could make them even worse in the coming years.

That study, published by researchers from Brown University in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found that “climate has been the main driver of fire on a regional scale” in the Sierra Nevada region, according to Richard Vachula, the study’s lead author.

“We find that warm and dry conditions promote fire, which in light of climate model predictions suggests that future fires may be more extensive than we have observed in the last century,” he said in prepared remarks.

Previous studies have found that even wet winter conditions may not be enough to prevent a catastrophic summer season.

That’s because temperatures are rising and extend drought conditions can dry out forests out, leaving conditions at heightened risk for wildfires to ignite and spread.

Researchers took sediment cores from the bottom of Swamp Lake, located in northern Yosemite National Park, and studied charcoal deposits contained within. By doing so, Vachula and other other researchers were able to create a record of how much the area had burned over the last 1,400 years.

The team also looked at archaeological records of the Miwok Native American tribe, “that inhabited these mountains for millennia,” which used fire to control underbrush growth, according to the report.

The data suggested that even with those controlled burns, climate remained the dominant factor behind fire activity at the regional level.

“Our results are significant because they clarify the relative roles of human management and climate as controls of fire regimes in California, and they highlight the need to prepare for future fire activity,” Vachula said in prepared remarks.

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for McClatchy. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.