Forecast: warmer, drier and more of us in harm’s way
As notices begin to arrive in the mail to nearly 850,000 California residences in fire-prone areas for Cal Fire’s controversial new fire prevention fee, a study out of the University of California Merced offers a powerful rationale for beefing up the state’s wildland firefighting resources.
Warmer average temperatures coupled with urban growth will greatly increase wildfire risk to California homes in the decades to come, according to the new UC study [PDF] prepared for the California Energy Commission.
Lead author and environmental engineering professor Anthony Westerling, says wildfire risk to California homes may double over the next 40 years because of a combination of climate change, land alteration and urban development.
The report supports the findings of several other studies released earlier this year showing a correlation between warming Western temperatures and increased fire activity. The study projects that climate change will generally increase fire risk across the state, with the greatest threat posed to forests in the foothills and mountains of Northern California.
The interplay among climate, people and fires is complex. In some cases, according to the report, factors contributing to fire risk may even cancel out. For example, development may reduce the volume of flammable material available to fuel large fires but the corresponding increase in population will up the probability of human ignitions.
Even with large-scale efforts to reduce carbon emissions, Westerling says that some level of warming is inevitable and that the state must work to phase in sound policies to mitigate growing risk to property.
“While policies to mitigate climate change could help to limit changes in wildfire, some level of additional warming is going to occur regardless, requiring adaptation,” Westerling said in a press release. “Fire suppression, fuels management and development policies such as zoning and building codes are the primary means we have to manage wildfire risks.”
The findings grabbed the attention of Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott, who spoke with Climate Watch senior editor Craig Miller last week. “When you have 11 of the 20 most damaging wildfires in California history happening since 2002, that tells us where things are going,” said Pimlott.
He noted that the models in the report are confirmed by the experience of fire crews in the field. “The computer models are helping us validate the things our firefighters and the public are seeing, real-time, on the ground,” said Pimlott. “We need to be responding to that now and into the future ”
Cal Fire’s fire prevention fee will be assessed on California homeowners living at fire-prone boundaries with open space. The fee, which has been met with protests in Marin County and derided by critics as an “illegal tax,” will hit California homeowners with a maximum annual charge of $150 and is expected to generate around $84 million in revenue for the agency.