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Environment & Science

How does the drought affect California's wildfires?




An image from the Blue Cut Fire tweeted by the San Bernardino County Fire Department on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016.
An image from the Blue Cut Fire tweeted by the San Bernardino County Fire Department on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016.
San Bernardino County Fire

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As the Blue Cut Fire continues to rage in San Bernardino – forcing thousands of residents to evacuate, halting highway traffic and threatening homes – researchers are asking how the ongoing drought in California is affecting the wildfires.

"What makes it dry is a lack of rain, of course, and the opposite of rain, [which is] lots of evapotranspiration, and that leads to excessive drying that's really dessicating those timbers – the timber and grasses – and turning them into a real tinder box," said Jay Famiglietti, professor of Earth System Science and Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Irvine. "Unfortunately, with climate change that means we're going to see a lot more in the future as the frequency and intensity of drought increases."

Since January, more than 3,800 fires have scorched more than 112,900 acres of state land, according to Cal Fire. That's about 15 percent more fires than at this point last year, and well above the state's five-year average.

Blue Cut Fire: Destruction, uncertainty as fire expands to nearly 50 square miles

The drought, now in its fifth year in the state, also makes responding to fires in hot and arid weather that much more difficult as the water supply to fight fires diminishes and firefighters face hostile conditions.

"When it gets up to 100, 110 degrees and you're in close proximity to the fire, it's extremely challenging, it's mentally and physically exhausting ," said Famiglietti.