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REPORT: California's Record Fire Season Drives Climate Change Into The News

A Media Matters analysis found that California's largest-circulating newspapers are increasingly mentioning how climate change is worsening the state's wildfires. California has faced an extremely early and severe fire season in 2014, in line with climate research showing that over the last four decades, fires have grown millions of acres larger and the fire season has extended by about three months on average.

  • State Newspapers Report Climate Context More Often As Wildfire Threat Grows

    California's Newspapers Increase Climate Coverage In Wildfire Stories By Over 50 Percent. Of all articles, columns and editorials analyzed, 11 percent mentioned climate change in their wildfire coverage in the three months leading up to and including California's early fire season this year. This amount marks an improvement over coverage from the same newspapers' coverage during an equivalent time period in 2013 when only 7 percent of wildfire stories mentioned climate change. The absolute number of stories that mentioned climate change increased by 55 percent from 9 to 14 articles.

    [Media Matters7/11/13]

    U-T San Diego Mentions Climate Change Only Once, To Cast Doubt On It. Oddly enough, the newspaper that covers an area that has seen some of the most immediate and recent devastation due to the wildfires, the U-T San Diego, mentioned climate change the least. U-T San Diego mentioned climate change only once in its wildfire coverage, while questioning its existence:

    If climate change is a fact, preparation [for wildfires] is more important than ever.

    “These (weather) patterns are only going to get worse,” [Sheryl Landrum of the Fire Safe Council of San Diego County] says. “Be prepared.” [U-T San Diego, 5/30/14]

    By comparison, the Orange County Register, San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle all have improved slightly, connecting climate change to wildfires in a few articles, an increase from zero mentions in the 2013 study.

    NY Times' David Carr: U-T San Diego Has Declined Under New Leadership. Since Doug Manchester, hotel mogul and major Republican donor, became the paper's owner and publisher and renamed it from the San Diego Union-Tribune, the newspaper's coverage has declined in quality, according to New York Times' media critic David Carr. Carr wrote:

    There is a growing worry that the falling value and failing business models of many American newspapers could lead to a situation where moneyed interests buy papers and use them to prosecute a political and commercial agenda. Paul Body Douglas Manchester, owner of The U-T San Diego.

    That future appears to have arrived in San Diego, where The U-T San Diego, the daily newspaper bought by the local developer and hotelier Douglas F. Manchester, often seems like a brochure for his various interests.

    Mr. Manchester is anti-big government, anti-tax and anti-gay marriage. And he's in favor of a remade San Diego centered around a new downtown waterfront stadium and arena. [New York Times6/11/12]

    Climate Change Contributing To Larger Fires, Longer Fire Seasons In West

    California's Fierce Wildfire Season Had “Unprecedented” Early Start. NPR reported that California's fire season had an “unprecedented” early start this year in a conversation with California's secretary for natural resources:

    MELISSA BLOCK, HOST: These fires herald what promises to be an especially busy and dangerous fire season in California. The entire state is in a condition of extreme drought. Couple that with high temperatures and strong Santa Ana winds and you wind up with what we're seeing now: spinning columns of fierce flame called firenados. I'm joined now by California's secretary for natural resources, John Laird. Welcome to the program, Mr. Laird.

    JOHN LAIRD: It's a pleasure to be with you.

    BLOCK: Is it unprecedented for fire season to be starting this early?

    LAIRD: It really is. Normally, we staff up throughout all of California approximately June 1 for fire season. Occasionally, it's different in different parts of the state. This year, we were up everywhere by April 1, and in some places, the fire season never really stopped from last year.


    BLOCK: Well, when you look at this combination of factors, is it clear to you that climate change is to blame for the drought and the heat, and ultimately for these fires?

    LAIRD: I think climate change is a major factor. And it's always questionable to link specific events scientifically to climate change. But the fact that our fire season has changed, the weather patterns are changing, that shows that in my home area of Santa Cruz, we used to always have streams and the river that flowed comfortably into May and sometimes June, and we turn to our reservoir as a backup in the summer months. And now the reservoir is now a central part of supply. You can just see the changes as people operate on the ground. [NPR, 5/16/14]

    Wildfire Season Has Grown By About Three Months On Average. Climate Desk created this chart based on data provided by fire ecologist Anthony Westerling of the University of California at Merced, which shows that the fire season in the West, including California, has gotten about three months longer on average. Mother Jones reported that scientists are connecting this expensive change to global warming, and expect changes in wildfires to be “among the most severe consequences of climate change in North America”:

    And the longer seasons mean even higher costs, explains Interior's Douglas. That's because seasonal firefighters must be kept on the payroll and seasonal facilities must be kept open longer.

    Environmental change is complicating the work of fire managers who already had their work cut out for them restoring forests from the decades-long practice of suppressing all fires, which led to an unhealthy buildup of fuel that can turn a small fire into a megafire.

    “Until the '80s or so, it was easy to explain fires as consequence of fuel accumulation,” says Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. “Now, piled on that are the effects of climate change. We are seeing larger fires and more of them.”

    Scientists like Covington are increasingly confident about the link between global warming and wildfires. In March, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that more and bigger wildfires are expected to be among the most severe consequences of climate change in North America. And a report prepared by the Forest Service for last month's National Climate Assessment predicts a doubling of burned area across the US by mid-century. [Mother Jones, 6/17/14]

    Wildfires Have Grown By Millions Of Acres On Average Since 1980s. Climate Desk also created this chart based on data from the National Interagency Fire Center showing that fires on federal lands have about quadrupled on average, and are continuing to get larger:

    Climate Change Increasing Wildfire Risk. When the U.S. Global Change Research Program issued its third National Climate Assessment (NCA) report on May 6, it warned that: "[p]rolonged periods of high temperatures associated with droughts contribute to conditions that lead to larger wildfires and longer fire seasons." Multiple models forecast “more wildfires as climate change continues.”

    Fire naturally shapes southwestern landscapes. Indeed, many Southwest ecosystems depend on periodic wildfire to maintain healthy tree densities, enable seeds to germinate, and reduce pests. Excessive wildfire destroys homes, exposes slopes to erosion and landslides, threatens public health, and causes economic damage. The $1.2 billion in damages from the 2003 Grand Prix fire in southern California illustrates the high cost of wildfires.


    Numerous fire models project more wildfire as climate change continues. Models project a doubling of burned area in the southern Rockies, and up to a 74% increase in burned area in California, with northern California potentially experiencing a doubling under a high emissions scenario toward the end of the century. Fire contributes to upslope shifting of vegetation, spread of invasive plants after extensive and intense fire, and conversion of forests to woodland or grassland. [U.S. Global Change Research Program, 5/6/14]

    Source: U.S. Global Change Research Program


    This report analyzes coverage from the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Sacramento Bee, U-T San Diego and the Orange County Register found within Nexis under the search terms “wildfire,” “wild fire” or “forest fire” between March 15, 2014 and June 15, 2014.

    Denise Robbins contributed to this report.