“New Normal” Of California Wildfires Doesn't Make The News

As wildfires swept through southern California over the past week, experts warned that the state is in for an especially dangerous wildfire season due to unusually hot and dry conditions. But in their coverage of the fires, several of California's major newspapers have entirely ignored how climate change has increased wildfire risks in the region.

California's wildfire season kicked off early this year, with record temperatures, heavy winds and ongoing drought conditions fueling fires across the state that have threatened thousands of homes and businesses. California has already experienced 680 wildfires this year -- about 200 more than average for this period -- and the National Interagency Fire Service is predicting "above normal" potential for significant fires in northern and southern California this season. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service is preparing for a higher number of significant fires across the West.

Climate experts warn that rising global temperatures are already leading to more frequent and more severe wildfires and longer fire seasons in the Southwest, calling large fires like those in California "the new normal." But several major print outlets in California have failed to make this connection, even after Governor Jerry Brown noted the link Monday.

The San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Orange County Register and U-T San Diego have not mentioned climate change while reporting on the recent fires. These papers also printed several stories from the Associated Press, none of which mentioned climate change. By contrast, the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times mentioned climate change in 33 percent and 27 percent of coverage, respectively.

Seven out of nine fire experts contacted by Media Matters in 2012 agreed that journalists covering wildfires in the West should explain how human-induced climate change increases the risk of wildfires in that region. But a previous Media Matters analysis found that only 3 percent of national media coverage connected the dots between wildfires and climate change. Despite some improvement, these latest findings indicate that some media outlets are still missing opportunities to inform their audiences about how climate change is amplifying wildfire risks.

METHODOLOGY: We searched the Nexis database for articles on “wildfire or wild fire or forest fire” between May 1 and May 8, 2013. Our results include six major California newspapers: Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and U-T San Diego.