California’s four-year drought has already cost the state billions of dollars and placed thousands of jobs at risk. Now scientists say it has the potential to strengthen wildfires that could destroy homes, affect watersheds and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to extinguish during the warm summer months.
“We are seeing wildfires in the United States grow to sizes that were unimaginable just 20 or 30 years ago,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told lawmakers this week. “We expect 2015 to continue the trend of above average fire activity.”
In part because of the increased risk caused by drought, the Forest Service anticipates spending as much as $1.7 billion and mobilizing more than 10,000 people to fight wildfires this year. More than 120 wildfires have occurred on National Forest land in California already this year, according to a Forest Service spokesperson.
Climate change, at least in part, lies at the heart of growth in both the frequency and severity of wildfires in recent decades. Higher temperatures have left forests throughout California dry and flammable, according to Wally Covington, a forest ecology professor at Northern Arizona University. Tree death, another product of the drought, has also increased the chance of wildfire. More than 12 million trees in California forests have died and more are expected to do so soon, according to a Forest Service report.
Widespread tree death can be described as a 20-year “sequence of flammability,” Covington said. First, dead needles on pine trees dry up and start a period of “extreme