How Researchers Are Responding to Mitigate California’s Wildfire Crisis

NASA thermal image of world
The impact of a warming planet. The statewide model projections for California, based on a future without global policy coordination to reduce greenhouse gas, show a 77 percent increase in the average number of wildfires throughout California compared to baseline conditions of 1961 to 1990. (NASA)

By Lisa Howard / Originally published on UC Davis Office of Research 

The Camp Fire in 2018 was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, killing 85 and burning over 150,000 acres and 18,000 structures. It came just a little over a year after the devastating Tubbs Fire, signifying an alarming new reality in the state.

As the Camp Fire spread, the smoke blanketed most of Northern California, including Davis, for weeks. It created air quality so hazardous the California Air Resources Board recommended people stay indoors. UC Davis took the unprecedented step of cancelling classes for seven instructional days.

The rise in the destructiveness of California’s wildfires raises questions about what the future holds for the state. But what’s clear is the problems surrounding California’s wildfires are myriad and complex — and research has an important role to play in solving them.

At UC Davis, scientists and researchers are responding to the accelerating crisis with a broad range of research studies and innovations. Driven by the growing impact, they are narrowing in on ways to reduce the severity of wildfires, evaluate the toxicity of the smoke, document the environmental factors, treat the affected wildlife and understand the long-term impacts on health in order to mitigate the toll of wildfires on our lives and the planet.

Climate Models Show Increase in Wildfires 

UC Davis Professor Benjamin Houlton, director of the John Muir Institute of the Environment and a member of the UC Office of the President’s Global Climate Leadership Council, understands that a holistic, multipronged approach that connects research with policy is needed.

Houlton has modeled different wildfire futures for California as part of his climate research. He points out that nine of the top 10 largest wildfires in the state in terms of acreage have occurred in the past two decades, which correspond to an increase in temperature in the state.

“We are seeing an intensification of heat and more and more wildfires,” said Houlton. The statewide model projections, which are based on a future without global policy coordination to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, show an alarming trend.

“In the future it’s likely that we will see about a 77 percent increase in the average number of wildfires throughout California compared to baseline conditions of 1961 to 1990,” said Houlton.

And future wildfires will likely be even more extreme according to scientific analysis. “What starts to appear in the models with higher and higher frequency are mega wildfires that we’ve never really recorded. We will likely see fires that will make all the previous fires look small by comparison.”

Houlton hopes rather than just scaring people, that the projections inspire them to tackle change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“With the wildfires in California, and now in Australia, it’s becoming clear to people that climate change is causing massive amounts of human suffering. The time to address the underlying causes of these disruptions is now,” said Houlton.

“What we know is that California’s wildfires continue to grow more deadly and more destructive,” said Prasant Mohapatra, vice chancellor for research at UC Davis. “And with climate change, that trend is expected to continue. As one of the world’s major research institutions, I am hopeful that our wide range of research can not only help California but can help other parts of the world that are also struggling with the impact of catastrophic wildfires.”

Learn more about other faculty here.

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