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Study: Climate change now drives wildfire risk in the West

A pine forest is shrouded in smoke beneath a dull red sun. Fire burns at the base of the trees.
Brady Smith/Coconino National Forest
The 2010 Mesa Fire in Arizona

The area burned annually by wildfires in the Western United States has risen sharply since the 1980s. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, a new study out of the University of California-Los Angeles suggests human-caused climate change is driving the trend.

The study focused on a concept called “fire weather,” which is linked to how thirsty the atmosphere is.

Fire weather leads to dry soil, water-stressed plants, and ultimately greater wildfire risk. It’s increasingly common in the West. The study shows natural weather patterns account for only one-third of that trend; the rest is attributed to the warmer temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate scientist Rong Fu, one of the authors, says, "I really felt this research helped me to appreciate the linkage between what we’re doing daily in terms of our carbon emission, and the fire danger right at our doorstep."

Fu says scientists expected climate change to become the main driver of fire weather around the middle of this century. It was a surprise to discover that had already taken place.

The study appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.