Written by By Stephanie Morales, CNN
A new study has found that global warming could make the northern California region’s already considerable wildfire risk — and life-threatening for firefighters — ten times worse over the next 50 years.
The research, published in Nature Communications , explored the challenges wildfires can pose to evacuation routes and established infrastructure.
“The tallest forested hills and treescape roads are increasingly likely to be eroded, weakened, overgrown, modified by fire, and impacted by adverse climate conditions,” the authors wrote in the study.
Much of Southern California is currently dealing with massive wildfires and is already dealing with “severe fire season” year round, they added.
“The forests in Southern California are very dense with over 5 million people living in them. (Those that aren’t already) consider them a common day-to-day thing,” said first author Jamieson Hucal . “It’s serious because of climate change but also because we don’t have the infrastructure in place to respond to these events.”
This map shows the risk of wildfire in Southern California
Hucal and his team looked at the years 1973, 1998, 2011 and 2017 from which the amount of fire and devastation in California caused by Santa Rosa-style fires — thought to be among the most ferocious fires ever — was predicted to double in 2019 and 2021.
In total, these northern California wildfires killed 44 people and caused $9 billion in economic losses. They burned more than 800,000 acres of land.
According to the state fire agency Cal Fire, this year is on track to be the deadliest in California’s history with 31 confirmed dead and tens of thousands of people still displaced.
“I know it’s shocking to think about, but it’s going to become ever more difficult and impossible to evacuate people in times of emergency, and there’s going to be more people getting caught in these situations,” said Hucal.
“Everyone is struggling right now and our first goal is to keep everyone safe, but if you can’t leave then you’re not going to be able to.”
For decades, the state has struggled to put an end to what has come to be known as the “megafires,” which strip forests of dead trees and contain more fuel than ever before.
The ease of access to fire engines and heliborne aircraft, as well as the spread of burn sites at higher elevations due to a moderate climate, makes the risk worse.
“We need to address the root causes of these extreme fire events. They have nothing to do with lack of resources, volunteer fire crews or houses left standing on burned out tracts,” said Stanislaus County Fire Chief Michael Murphy in a statement.
“They are about changing winds, the vegetation being burned, and the lack of forest thinning. Currently, there are inadequate resources and we have 50 years of poor management in place. These fires are not a fait accompli.”
“Maybe we’ll have a good Santa Ana wind event in February and March,” said Hucal. “Right now we’re in a middle of it.”