Dozens of campers were packed shoulder to shoulder, leaving behind their belongings to be airlifted from the very place that had offered a serene escape.
California’s Sierra National Forest was quickly becoming surrounded by raging fires when helicopters arrived to airlift hundreds of people over the holiday weekend. From a scenic retreat to an urgent recovery mission, the contrast is a stark reminder climate change is upending life in the nation’s most populous state.
This time last year, California saw 4,927 fires that burned 118,000 acres, Gov. Gavin Newsom said. In 2020, there have been 7,606 blazes thus far.
“Wildfires are a big part of the seasonal challenge,” Newsom said. “The challenge we’re facing now is the extreme fire events that we believe are climate induced.” Newsom has pointed directly at climate change as the source of the extreme heat wave and a primary factor in the scores of wildfires plaguing California.
The effects have been painfully felt. At least seven people have died since the start of this year’s fire season, according to Cal Fire, with thousands of homes reduced to embers. Many communities have had to order mandatory evacuations, and more than 170,000 recently went without power to prevent future blazes.
The state has seen a record of more than 2.2 million acres scorched so far this year, Cal Fire announced Tuesday. And officials warn many of those fires will burn uncontrollably until the weather changes.
California wildfires have increased 8x in size since the 1970s
Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told CNN it is shocking to the see the impacts of the wildfires in the Western US, “but not scientifically surprising.”
Swain explained that due to human-caused climate change, temperature extremes are climbing higher and the vegetation is drier, which affects fire behavior.
“But climate change has not just made the extreme heat waves that coincided with the fires worse. The bigger effect is the more subtle, long-term warming,” he said. “That couple of degrees of (average) warming over decades … you don’t notice it as much, but it’s still there lurking in the background, sucking extra moisture out of the vegetation and the soil.”
Since the 1970s, California wildfires have increased in size by eight times, and the annual area burned by fires has increased by nearly 500%, according to CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford.
Now, people across California wake up daily to red-flag warnings that signal conditions are ripe for fire danger.
Swain doesn’t expect current conditions to improve soon for California and other Western states battling blazes. The heart of the fire season is yet to come for the most populated part of California, he cautioned.
“Until widespread precipitation falls on the West Coast – of which there’s currently no sign at all and in a typical year, wouldn’t be expected for another one to two months – conditions are going to continue to be really extreme. I don’t see much of a let up.”
CNN’s Drew Kann and Cheri Mossburg contributed to this report.