Search
Firefighters battle a wildfire in The Mojave Narrows Regional Park in Victorville Calif., March 31, 2015.
Firefighters battle a wildfire in The Mojave Narrows Regional Park in Victorville Calif., March 31, 2015.  James Quigg—AP

How the California Drought Is Increasing the Potential for Devastating Wildfires

May 08, 2015

California's four-year drought has already cost the state billions of dollars and placed thousands of jobs at risk. Now scientists say it has the potential to strengthen wildfires that could destroy homes, affect watersheds and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to extinguish during the warm summer months.

"We are seeing wildfires in the United States grow to sizes that were unimaginable just 20 or 30 years ago," U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told lawmakers this week. "We expect 2015 to continue the trend of above average fire activity."

In part because of the increased risk caused by drought, the Forest Service anticipates spending as much as $1.7 billion and mobilizing more than 10,000 people to fight wildfires this year. More than 120 wildfires have occurred on National Forest land in California already this year, according to a Forest Service spokesperson.

Climate change, at least in part, lies at the heart of growth in both the frequency and severity of wildfires in recent decades. Higher temperatures have left forests throughout California dry and flammable, according to Wally Covington, a forest ecology professor at Northern Arizona University. Tree death, another product of the drought, has also increased the chance of wildfire. More than 12 million trees in California forests have died and more are expected to do so soon, according to a Forest Service report.

See How California Is Using Its Diminishing Water Resources

The Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades are seen in Sylmar
VIEW GALLERY | 11 PHOTOS
The Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades, which bring water 223 miles from the Owens River in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, and 137 miles from the Haiwee Reservoir, are a major source of water for Los Angeles. Seen here in Sylmar, Calif. on May 4, 2015.Lucy Nicholson—Reuters
The Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades are seen in Sylmar
The Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades are seen in Sylmar
A creek is seen in Northridge
A tractor ploughs a field next to a canal in Los Banos
A worker walks through farm fields in Los Banos
A canal runs through farm fields in Los Banos
"In the Central Valley, where most agricultural water use occurs, the failure to manage groundwater sustainably limits its availability as a drought reserve. The increase in perennial crops—which need to be watered every year—has made the region even more vulnerable," the Public Policy Institute of California states.
Water pours into a canal in Los Banos
Livestock products, including meat, dairy and eggs, account for more than a quarter of California's agricultural sector, a $12.5 billion industry, according to the USDA. Cattle are among the most water-hungry livestock, consuming an average of106 gallons per pound of beef. Cattle are seen at Harris Ranch in Coalinga, Calif. on May 5, 2015.
A wheat field is seen in Los Banos
A water protest sign is seen in Los Banos
The Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades, which bring water 223 miles from the Owens River in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountai
... VIEW MORE

Lucy Nicholson—Reuters
1 of 11

Widespread tree death can be described as a 20-year "sequence of flammability," Covington said. First, dead needles on pine trees dry up and start a period of "extreme fire danger." When the needles fall to the ground, they remain extremely vulnerable to catching fire but are less likely to spread. Finally, over the years, the trees fall to the ground. If they catch fire, have the potential to destroy the surrounding soil and destabilize the habitat.

Other factors contributing forest fire risk include an increase in the presence of various invasive species that wreck havoc on the local environment and poorly located hazardous fuels.

When the Forest Service isn't focused on fighting wild fires, agency officials spend time and resources trying to prevent the possibility of future fires through ecological restoration, a process of restoring an ecosystem to its natural state. The process doesn't prevent fires, but it makes them less likely to grow to massive proportions.

Forest Service workers have treated more than 9,300 acres thus far this year, but Covington says it's not enough. Ecological restoration projects should aim to handle hundreds of thousands or millions of acres to be most effective, he says.

"The science strong is on this," Covington said. "Ecological restoration will not only prevent severe fires, but all bring in the way of resource benefits for wildlife, for watershed conditions, for scenic beauty and even possibly some restoration jobs."

The Most Beautiful Wildfire Photos You'll Ever See

Yosemite Meadow Fire Wildfire
VIEW GALLERY | 10 PHOTOS
The Meadow Fire burns overnight near Half Dome in Yosemite National Park early Monday September 8, 2014. As of Wednesday the fire had burned over 4,500 acres and was 10% contained.Stuart Palley
Yosemite Meadow Fire Wildfire
Yosemite Meadow Fire Wildfire
Yosemite Meadow Fire Wildfire
Yosemite Meadow Fire Wildfire
Yosemite Meadow Fire Wildfire
Yosemite Meadow Fire Wildfire
Yosemite Meadow Fire Wildfire
Yosemite Meadow Fire Wildfire
Yosemite Meadow Fire Wildfire
Yosemite Meadow Fire Wildfire
The Meadow Fire burns overnight near Half Dome in Yosemite National Park early Monday September 8, 2014. As of Wednesday
... VIEW MORE

Stuart Palley
1 of 10
All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.