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Climate Change Continues to Intensify Fires in California

Residents of Malibu, California, woke up Friday morning to mandatory evacuation orders as extreme winds pushed the raging Woolsey Fire over the hills toward the oceanside city. As the members of the famously affluent community packed up their cars and fled, news broke that the Camp Fire, burning on the northern end of the state, had claimed at least five lives.

The Woolsey and Camp Fires mark a continuation of unprecedented burning in California, a trend that seems unlikely to end: The particular conditions that have turned the Woolsey and Camp Fires into infernos have only been intensified by the effects of climate change. As Kate Wheeling reported for Pacific Standard last year:

California has two distinct fire seasons: the summer season, when hot temperatures dry out vegetation providing fuel for wildfires; and the fall fire season, when hot, dry Santa Ana winds blow in over the mountains from the desert. Research shows that global warming is making both of them worse.

In Northern California, intense drought conditions and dried-out vegetation have turned the area around Chico (just north of Sacramento) into fuel for fires. And in the south, hurricane-strength Santa Ana winds are propelling the Woolsey Fire toward the ocean, endangering the houses and people caught in its way.

Scientists report that both dry conditions and extreme winds are being intensified by climate change, meaning that California may face even larger crises in the future. "California is only expected to get hotter and drier," Wheeling reported last year. "As such conditions become the new normal, California could become a perpetual tinderbox."