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FOR THE WEEK OF NOV. 19, 2018

Severe California wildfires show impact of drought and hotter, drier summers there

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Are most California fires extinguished or reduced this week?
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Look for coverage of families who lost residences or can't go home yet. Share a quote and describe your reaction.
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Read about other environmental news (good or bad) anywhere and tell two things you learn.
California faces a massive, costly recovery from its worst wildfires in state history. Wind-driven blazes this month in hilly, populated areas north of San Francisco and near Los Angeles killed more than 60 people, a toll that’s expected to rise as searches continue for missing residents in Northern California whose homes are destroyed. There were mass evacuations and a loss of thousands of homes and businesses. Thousands of wooded acres are scorched, creating mudslide risks the next time heavy rain comes.

It's unclear how the brush fires started, but specialists believe steadily rising average temperatures and a drier atmosphere – conditions linked to global climate change – make these type of fires more destructive than in past decades. The state's hottest and driest summers on record have all occurred in the past 20 years. That draws water out of plants and soil, leaving trees, shrubs and grasslands primed to burn. "You've got temperatures that are about two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would've been without global warming," says Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University in New York. “Climate change, in a few different ways, seems to load the dice toward more fire in the future." A Los Angeles Times editorial says: “Hotter summers yield more fuel for fires and stronger winds to fan the flames. And this summer was California's hottest on record."

Authorities also blame an abundant supply of combustible material from a years-long drought that killed millions of trees or left them vulnerable to insect infestations. “What we’re seeing in California right now is more destructive, larger fires burning at rates that we have historically never seen," says Jonathan Cox of Cal Fire, a state agency coordinating emergency response. Fifteen of the state's 20 largest fires have burned since 2000. As Earth’s average temperature warms because of human-caused climate change (blamed on burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal), topsoil will continue to dry out, according to a 2017 National Climate Assessment.

Governor says: "These kinds of catastrophes . . . will continue to happen. That's the way it is with a warming climate, dry weather and reducing moisture." – Gov. Jerry Brown of California

Expert says: "Sustained heat really pulls water out of vegetation, and that sets up conditions for big fires. . . . It adds up." -- Alex Hall, University of California-Los Angeles climate scientist

Editorial says: "Every year seems to bring bigger, more calamitous fires. . . . Climate change is amplifying natural variations in the weather. . . . As the continued burning of fossil fuels adds heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere and exacerbates the effects of climate change, the state is going to see more frequent, more destructive wildfires." – Los Angeles Times

Front Page Talking Points is written by Alan Stamm for NIEonline.com, Copyright 2019
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