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Study: Number of NorCal Wildfires Increased Since 1984, Climate Change Making Fires Worse

DAVIS (CBS SF) -- A new study from UC Davis found that the number of high-severity wildfires in Northern California have been increasing by 10% each decade since 1984 and that climate change is making the fires worse.

The study, titled "Intensified burn severity in California's northern coastal mountains by drier climatic condition," looked at environmental drivers of the state's wildfires, determining that the drought of 2012-2016 practically doubled the amount of burned land.

"The severity of wildfires has been increasing over the past four decades," said lead author Yuhan Huang, a graduate student researcher at UC Davis. "We found that fires were much bigger and more severe during dry and hot years compared to other climatic conditions."

Huang and his fellow researchers looked at the coastal foothills and mountains surrounded by Central Valley lowlands to the east and stretching north to the Klamath Mountains. Several areas studied for the report have been impacted by the recent wildfires.

"Most of the fires occurring now are exacerbated by this heat wave," said co-leading author Yufang Jin, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources. "Our study shows how prolonged and historic dry conditions lead to extreme behaviors of wildfires, especially when they coincide with warmer temperature."

Researchers used a machine-learning model that predicts the potential and severity of future wildfires. Using data from previous fires, it found that during dry years, the areas in the study were particularly at risk of high-severity fires, although the entire area is susceptible.

Historical data shows that about 36% of all fires between 1984 and 2017 in the studied area burned at high severity, which was much higher during dry years. That's opposed to wet years, when about 20 percent of burns were considered high-severity fires. High temperatures further increased the severity of wildfires.

The study emphasized how land-use planning and fuel management in the state's driest areas can reduce the risk of massive wildfires as the climate heats up.

"Those are things we can control in the short-term," Jin said. "Prioritizing high-risk areas is something more practical to reduce the damages."

To read the study, visit Environmental Research Letters.

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