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Report: California wildfires getting worse due to climate change

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The Silver Fire south of Banning in the San Jacinto Mountains of Riverside County grew to 6,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 1,500.
The Silver Fire south of Banning in the San Jacinto Mountains of Riverside County grew to 6,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 1,500.

The past decade, California had three of the largest fire years on record. A new report by the state points to cause: climate change.

The Silver Fire near Banning is just the latest in a series of large wildfires burning throughout the state California, which has seen an increase in fire in recent years. 

In fact, in just the past 10 years, California has seen three of the largest fire years on record. Now a new report by the state points to cause: climate change.

"The wildfires are getting worse, despite our ability to fight them better," said George Alexeeff, director of California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, on Take Two. "The connections with climate change have to do a lot with moisture content…The snow is melting sooner, and the summers are getting warmer so the fire season is starting earlier, and lasting longer due to the lack of moisture content."

RELATED: Map, fire stats and more: Full details at KPCC's Fire Tracker

In addition, the report says that coastal waters off California are getting more acidic, fall-run chinook salmon populations to the Sacramento River are on the decline and conifer forests on the lower slopes of the Sierra Nevada have moved to higher elevations over the past half century.

"The other contributor would be increase in infestation of insects such as beetles that weaken the trees," said Alexeeff. "An increase in temperature seems to increase infestations."

The findings are an update to a 2009 report that documented how a warming California is impacting the environment, wildlife and people.

Among the other known impacts: 

  • Butterflies in the Central Valley are emerging from hiding earlier in the spring. 
  • Glaciers in the Sierra Nevada have shrunk. 
  • Spring runoff from snowmelt has declined, affecting Central Valley farmers and hydroelectric plants that rely on snowmelt to produce power.

The 258-page report, which cost $282,000 to produce, was compiled from existing climate studies and released by an arm of the California Environmental Protection Agency. Officials hope it would spur the state and local governments to plan ahead and adapt to a hotter future.

Annual average temperatures across the state have risen by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, with the greatest warming seen in portions of the Central Valley and Southern California.

"If we look at agriculture, one of the issues is that the minimum temperature is going up more dramatically than the maximum temperature," said Alexeeff. "This affects what's called winter chill, which affects agriculture in terms of blossoming and pollination issues…That could have effects on our production."          

Levels of carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping gases in the state increased between 1990 and 2011. In recent years, there has been a slight drop—the result of industries and vehicles becoming more energy efficient, the report said.

"California has been a leader in reducing greenhouse gas emission and black carbon emissions," said Alexeeff. "I our report we show how we've done that in many ways by being more efficient on energy and a lot of the standards we put in place."                            

Still, despite efforts to reduce emissions, the report claims Californians can expect more heat waves, wildfires and higher sea levels as the state warms.    

Climate Change Indicators Report 2013   

With contributions from The Associated Press

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