Climate Change Is Burning Down California. It's Time We Stopped Adding Fuel to the Fire | Opinion

Climate change was long regarded as a distant threat, one happening in far off places and future times. That is unfortunately no longer the case. Climate change is here, and it's burning through California.

I spent five years in the San Francisco Bay Area getting my undergraduate degrees in applied math and physics from UC-Berkeley. To see my campus threatened by the fires is heartbreaking. I can't even imagine how bad it is for those who have spent their entire lives, not just a beloved portion of it, in the East Bay. My thoughts are with those struggling to survive this fire, and are choking through the clouds of smoke it casts across the state.

Tragically, climate change will only bring more of these disasters to our doorsteps, demanding our attention by putting more and more lives in direct danger.

When it comes to climate change and wildfire, there is a solid connection.

Once a fire ignites, the conditions fostered by climate change increase the size, frequency, and intensity of wildfires, and lengthen the fire season. A slew of studies have identified these climate change signals in recent western wildfire trends. Climate change has led to an average temperature increase of 2°F in the western U.S., and this is making fires worse by heating up and drying out the landscape. When the ground is parched and plants are dry, it's far easier for fire to spread further, and faster.

In the Western US, climate change has increased the risk of fire weather fivefold and has doubled how much land has burned. Wildfire frequency has quadrupled since the 1980s, and fire season has lengthened by more than two months (78 days). These changes are largely linked to warmer temperatures and earlier snowmelt. Both ingredients (warmer temperatures and earlier snowmelt) have in turn been directly attributed to climate change.

While any number of factors (lightning, a discarded cigarette, a campfire, or faulty power line) may ignite a fire, it's the underlying environment that matters once a fire starts. And climate change has made that environment more conducive to faster-spreading, more intense wildfires.

With climate change there is no "new normal." Things will continue to get worse with each year we fail to act. But there is a new abnormal. Climate change is giving fires the chance to turn into catastrophic blazes by creating warmer temperatures, increasing the amount of dried vegetation, and reducing water availability.

Critics like to point to human land-use practices as the cause. But they cannot explain the devastating infernos of the past decade—these would not be possible without human-driven climate change. Last year's National Climate Assessment made clear that climate change played a greater role in the observed increasing extent of these wildfires than land management or fire suppression efforts.

We must of course avoid careless campfires or tossing lit cigarette butts into underbrush. But it's impossible to prevent every lightning strike and source of ignition. And "raking" is hardly the answer that some seem to think it to be. Our emission of greenhouse gases, however, is something we can control.

That's why we must fight climate change. Without solving this problem at its source, the fires will only continue to rage bigger and spread further.

And if you are fortunate enough to avoid the wildfires, increasingly deadly heat, worse flooding and more devastating supercharged storms may be visiting you soon. Unlike the ghouls or demons who show up at your door this Halloween, the spectre of climate change is very real.

Fortunately we can do something about it. By acting on climate. Now.

Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book, with Tom Toles, is The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Columbia University Press, 2016).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​