MARIN COUNTY (KPIX) -- Destructive wildfires have become an ever-present risk for many in the North Bay communities. As fire officials ramp up efforts to prevent fires, a new study shows why this may just be the beginning.
The brush and trees behind the Golden Gate Housing project in Marin City are so thick it's making it a challenge to create a defensible space. "Tam Crew 3" are seasonal firefighters and would normally be off work now, but on Wednesday they were trimming trees and removing brush.
In Marin, reducing fuels to prevent wildfires is now considered as important a job as putting them out.
"It seems like every year we have the biggest fire in California history," said crew chief Jeremiah Hanks, who fought this year's Dixie Fire for the Marin County Fire Department. "You know, things are drier, the fuels are as bad as they've ever been. And in order to combat that, we just need to get out here and do what we're doing right now."
Jesse Figoni, a vegetation management specialist for the Southern Marin Fire Protection District, agrees.
"The last 4 or 5 years, we've really seen an increase in temperatures, which definitely dries out vegetation, stresses the trees out," he said. "And all that is kindling or unburnt fuels for a wildfire to potentially ignite."
Firefighters have noticed how much drier and more flammable the vegetation is, and a new study from UCLA and the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories says why. Climate change is causing what's called a "vapor pressure deficit." As the Earth warms, so does the atmosphere and it begins to demand more moisture than is available.
"So the bigger this difference is, the more thirsty the atmosphere is, the more moisture the atmosphere wants from soil, from vegetation," said Dr Rong Fu, one of the study's lead scientists.
She said that deficit is causing the atmosphere to suck moisture out of vegetation, so even healthy trees are now more volatile in a fire. The study shows man-caused climate change is now responsible for more than 2/3 of our fire events, and is happening at a much faster pace than scientists expected.
"We know climate change contributes—that's not a surprise," said Dr Fu, "but we just didn't know it contributed so much already."
As a result, the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority is taking aggressive action to lessen fuels before next fire season. There are now crews across the county clearing brush and preparing evacuation routes in wildfire-prone areas.
Dr. Fu said the study shows climate change is not something our children or grandchildren must deal with; it's happening now and likely has been for decades. And we're only starting to do the things that will be necessary to deal with it.
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