The Rise of the Year-Round Wildfire

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Mike Savala’s boots scuffed the edge of a singed patch of forest littered with skinny fingers of burnt ponderosa pine needles. Nearby, an oak seedling sizzled as a yellow-shirted firefighter hit it with a stream of water. Spurts of smoke rose from blackened ground the size of a hockey rink. A 100-foot Ponderosa pine towered overhead.

“Third response today,” said Savala, shaking his head.

This hillside in my own backyard in California’s northern Sierra Nevada mountains hadn’t seen lightning for months and yet it had still burst into flames. All summer long, it had baked in heat that extended into an unseasonably hot autumn. Now, in late October, it was charred by a fire of mysterious origin. A spark from a wandering hiker? An errant ember from a burn pile? Spontaneous combustion?

Savala, a fire-crew boss for the Greenville Rancheria of Maidu Indians, scanned the sky. Cloudless. There had only been three inches of precipitation since July 1—15 percent of normal. And no wonder, since California is in the throes of its fourth dry year. More than 95 percent of the state is now classified as under severe or extreme drought.

Although small and easily contained, this tiny fire in rural Northeastern California was another wake-up call, up close and personal, about an ominous trend. A warming planet and changing land use are fueling a dramatic surge in forest fires worldwide. Terrifying projections forecast a 57 percent increase in extreme fires globally by century’s end. The indisputable cause: climate change.

“The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes,” a team of 50 researchers from six continents reported in “Spreading Like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires,” published this year by the United Nations Environment Program. That document describes what can only be viewed as a future flaming version of planetary collapse that could push humanity perilously close to a precipice of no return.

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