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California’s Climate Tinderbox: A Scientist Explains the Fire Crisis

The CZU Lightning Complex fire burns along Highway 236 in the town of Boulder Creek, California, on Aug. 20.
Photographer: Philip Pacheco/Bloomberg

Unexpected bad news hit California more than 11,000 times last week. That’s the estimated number of lightning strikes that unleashed two of the biggest fires in state history. The fires are burning at the same time across across more than 1.4 million acres, sending a cloud of smoke stretching across the Western U.S. 

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has emerged as one of the foremost voices explaining how California became a climate tinderbox. Forests dried out over years of rising temperatures, then the ecosystem suffered through the most intense heat wave in decades (and millions of people suffered through the first rolling blackouts in 20 years). The heat and dryness left everything primed for a catalyst to set off a drastic impact.