Clearing the Smoke: Tracking the Impacts of Fire Weather


Interview with Kaitlyn Weber Data Analyst Climate Central kweber@climatecentral.org


How did you get interested in fires? Did you grow up in a place that was highly affected by disasters?


I’d say so, yes. I grew up in Placerville, California. It’s a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains which has been affected by drought, wildfires, and climate change in general. Growing up, I was really interested in extreme weather and natural disasters. I spent most of my free time playing outside, exploring nature. As I grew older, I noticed the environment around me changing. The four once distinct seasons started to blur into what felt like an endless summer and an all too brief winter. Rain and snow became increasingly scarce which put a major strain on our water supply. It seemed like each year became hotter and drier than the last as wildfires grew larger and more frequent. It was all this change that really inspired me to learn more about what was happening around me once I got to college. I ended up in the geography department where, thanks to some really incredible professors, I realized I wanted to be a climate scientist. So my interest in fires primarily grew from my personal experiences and then was really reinforced through my educational experiences.


Climate Central recently came out with a fire weather report. Can you talk about the report and why it was important to produce it now?


The catalyst for the report was the 2018 Camp Fire which burned down the town of Paradise, California. Paradise was in many ways just like my hometown. About a year after the fire, a documentary was released called Fire in Paradise. In it, there was a quote from a CALFIRE chief that said something along the lines of: Everyone wants to focus on the fuels part but it’s the weather that is really hurting us. He talked about how firefighters used to be able to count on the nighttime hours as kind of a break period – a time when temperatures would drop and humidity would rise, giving them time to make substantial progress as they try to contain the fire. But in recent years, overnight temperatures are staying high and humidity levels are staying low, forcing first responders to work 24/7 and making it harder to put out existing fires. I started to hear more and more about the role weather played in the Camp Fire and became increasingly interested in the concept of fire weather. Often times people talk about fires in terms of total acres burned or number of fires. Changing our focus to the weather really allowed us to look at wildfires in a different way. It wasn’t until this year that I was able to focus on this analysis and strangely enough, the week we finished the report was the same week the Caldor Fire exploded just outside my hometown. This project really did begin and end with a fire which just underscores the fact that these are not one-off events. These fires aren’t going away any time soon, and we need to prepare ourselves for that.


How is fire season changing?

While we know fire season is expanding, our report focused more on the fire weather season. Generally speaking, fire weather refers to meteorological conditions that promote extreme fire behavior. You can think of fire weather days as those really dry, warm, windy days that essentially set the stage for really dangerous fire activity. Our analysis looked at the frequency of fire weather conditions across most of the western United States. What we found was there has been an increase in fire weather days across most of the West since the early 1970s and that it’s really decreasing humidity, resulting from climate change, that is driving the increase. It’s important to clarify that these fire weather days aren’t necessarily causing the fires but what they’re doing is they’re creating that perfect storm of conditions, setting the stage for these megafires and it’s getting worse thanks to climate change.

What can individuals do to help mitigate the effects of fire weather?


More fire weather means more risk for the people that live in these areas. There are things individuals can do to decrease their personal risk level like creating defensible space, making sure their neighborhood/community has an evacuation plan in place, and subscribing to emergency alerts whether that is via social media, radio, TV, etc. But if we want to seriously address what’s causing these increases in fire weather days, we need to drastically cut our emissions in the next few years. There really is no substitute, which is the bad news. But the good news is we know how we can cut emissions. For example, most of our emissions in the U.S. come from the transportation and energy sectors. Things like wind and solar energy and electrical vehicles – these are lower carbon-based forms of energy and methods of transportation that we can use to bring our emissions down.


What do you hope people will take away from the report?


I hope this report helps people better understand the connection between wildfire, weather and climate change. Many people have asked us whether there is a connection between climate change and wildfire and our report shows there definitely is. I hope it helps people better understand the ways in which climate change has and/or will affect them in the future. A 2020 survey by Yale revealed that only 43% of adults who were surveyed thought that global warming was going to hurt them or harm them personally. That’s really troubling. We cannot separate ourselves from nature and I hope our report can serve as an example of that.


Final thoughts…


The Camp Fire was started by electrical equipment belonging to the utility company PG&E. After the fire, Californians started to see an increase in Public Safety Power Shutoffs – essentially preventative blackouts utility companies turn to when fire weather conditions are forecasted. These shutoffs can occur in the middle of summer when temperatures are breaking records and people need AC to survive. Others need electricity to power medical supplies. An increase in fire weather days suggests these preventative blackouts could become more common, which means we don’t even need a fire to be impacted by fire weather. More fire weather days means more risk to public health, property, and local economies… even without a fire.


About Kaitlyn

Kaitlyn Weber is a data analyst at Climate Central. She has a B.A. in Physical Geography from California State University, Sacramento and a M.S. in Geography from the University of Nevada, Reno, where her research focused on climate change in the Arctic region. Before attending graduate school, she volunteered for the Earthwatch Institute in Churchill, Manitoba, studying the effects of climate change on the northern treeline. Previously, she was a cartographer for California State Parks.