SoCal Megadroughts and Megafires: Caused by Climate Change?

On an insufferably hot Santa Ana condition day in SoCal, it’s worth asking if the fire season we face this year is directly linked to the lack of rain we’ve experienced for the last three years, and, more broadly, from the “megadrought” identified by numerous researchers this century.

Here’s what that long-term drought looks like in graphic form. The chart comes from a huge and challenging study by SoCal fire expert Jon Keeley at the USGS, available on his page, called Large, high-intensity fire events in southern California shrublands: debunking the fire-grain age patch model.


Looks pretty ominous doesn’t it? Roughly speaking, a sixty-year drought.

But Keeley, who in the paper points out that decades-long droughts and monster fires have occured in SoCal well before the American way of life took hold on this land, stresses that it’s too soon to say whether or not climate change is responsible for the megadroughts and megafires:

Whether or not these extraordinary droughts and the
fires accompanying them are due to anthropogenically
induced climate change, as may be the case in high
elevation western forests (Westerling et al. 2006), is not
known. We contend that there is a causal
relationship between this drought and the large number
of megafires in recent years, but it is too early to
tell if this drought is part of an anthropogenically driven
climate change induced trajectory of continued drought,
or part of a natural cycle.

Keeley and his co-authors go on to warn that climate change is probably making things worse overall in SoCal, but they certainly defy the cliche of researchers eager to attribute all disasters to global warming.

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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