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Two firefighting helicopters took water from the Pacific Ocean off San Clemente to fight three wildfires at the nearby Camp Pendleton Marine base.

Bailey Bianco • Associated Press,

Warming planet means more wildfires, scientists say

  • Article by: SETH BORENSTEIN
  • Associated Press
  • May 18, 2014 - 11:18 PM

– The devastating wildfires scorching Southern California offer a glimpse of a warmer and more fiery future, according to scientists and federal and international reports.

In the past three months, at least three different studies and reports have warned that wildfires are getting bigger, that man-made climate change is to blame, and it’s only going to get worse with more fires starting earlier in the year. While scientists are reluctant to blame global warming for any specific fire, they have been warning for years about how it will lead to more fires and earlier fire seasons.

“The fires in California and here in Arizona are a clear example of what happens as the Earth warms, particularly as the West warms, and the warming caused by humans is making fire season longer and longer with each decade,” said University of Arizona geoscientist Jonathan Overpeck. “It’s certainly an example of what we’ll see more of in the future.”

Gov. Jerry Brown told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that the state has 5,000 firefighters and has appropriated $600 million for battling blazes, but that may not be enough.

“We’re getting ready for the worst,” Brown said. “Now, we don’t want to anticipate before we know, but we need a full complement of firefighting capacity.”

California’s state firefighting agency went to peak staffing in the first week of April, instead of its usual mid-May.

Since 1984, the area burned by the West’s largest wildfires — those of more than 1,000 acres — have increased by about 87,700 acres a year, according to an April study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. And the areas where fire has been increasing the most are areas where drought has been worsening and “that certainly points to climate being a major contributor,” study main author Philip Dennison of the University of Utah said Friday.

The top five years with the most acres burned have all happened in the last decade, according to federal records. From 2010-2013, about 6.4 million acres a year burned on average; in the 1980s it was 2.9 million acres a year.

“We are going to see increased fire activity all across the West as the climate warms,” Dennison said.

That was one of a dozen “key messages” in the 841-page National Climate Assessment released by the federal government earlier this month. It mentioned wildfires 200 times.

“Increased warming, drought and insect outbreaks, all caused by or linked to climate change have increased wildfires and impacts to people and ecosystems in the Southwest,” the federal report said. “Fire models project more wildfire and increased risks to communities across extensive areas.”

Likewise, the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted in March that wildfires are on the rise in the western United States, have killed 103 Americans in 30 years, and will likely get worse.

California’s fires are fueled by three major ingredients: drought, heat and wind. California and Arizona have had their hottest first four months of the year on record, according to National Weather Service records. Parts of Southern California broke records Thursday, with temperatures above 100. For the past two weeks, the entire state of California has been in a severe or worse drought.

© 2014 Star Tribune