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Yes, climate change is making Texas wildfires worse

Climate change does not cause fires but a large body of scientific evidence shows it does make it more likely that we'll suffer extreme events.

DALLAS — It's historic, but not in a good way.

Wildfires have scorched more than 120,000 acres across Texas this month, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. One person has died, at least 150 structures have burned and entire communities have been evacuated.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which spotted the fires from space, says they’ve been fueled by a favorable mix of "...warm temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds."

But what about climate change? Is that making wildfires worse?

For answers, I'm looking at studies from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Texas A&M University and talking to Dr. Mark Cochrane, a wildfire expert at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

"Is climate change making wildfires worse in the United States?” I asked him.

"Yes. Climate changes that we are experiencing quite demonstrably making wildfires worse and harder to control," Cochrane said.

Okay. But how?

Let's start with the fact that humans burn coal and other carbon-based fuels. That sends massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And carbon dioxide is really good at trapping in heat.

Research published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows more and more carbon in the atmosphere over the last 140 years.

At the same time, global average temperature is also on the rise. For example, in 2020, the average was 2.14 degrees Fahrenheit warmer since the time we first started burning coal.

This research paper from scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research finds, because of that warming, there is a "...drift of the Southwest's climate into a drier state."

Dr. Cochrane says that drier state helps dry out vegetation, making it easier to burn.

“And so that, you know, more often we're going to have these conditions where those fuels are so dry that the fire behavior will be much more explosive,” he said.

And it's only going to get drier.

The Texas State Climatologist at Texas A&M projects, "... drier conditions during the latter half of the 21st century than even the most arid centuries of the last 1,000 years that included megadroughts."

Cochrane says the only sustainable solution is to adapt the way we live with, manage and fight fires.

“We can't do it overnight. We can't change everything all at once. But we have to learn to live with this fire more and more, because as we're seeing, we can't put them out anymore,” said Cochrane.

So, is climate change making wildfires worse? The answer is yes.

And nowhere is that clearer than in a town that’s literally named Carbon, where almost 90 structures burnt down.

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