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Two reasons why fires hit California so much harder than Utah

Posted at 5:59 PM, Oct 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-28 19:59:55-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Why are wildfires destroying so many homes and taking lives in California compared with other western states like Utah?

Two answers: population and climate.

The fact is, U.S. government data shows a larger percentage of Utah homes are built in Wildland-Urban Interface areas compared to California homes: 48 to 33 percent respectively.

But 33 percent of homes in California adds up to 4.4 million structures, while 48% of Utah homes equals 467,000.

California’s total landmass is about twice that of Utah.

Think about those facts together…California is more densely built and densely populated…a wildfire in the Golden State far more likely to find a building than one in the Beehive State.

But climate takes that population density factor and multiplies it in two ways.

First is climate change. In a New York Times report, bioclimatologist Park Williams says a two to three-degree increase in Fahrenheit causes drier conditions earlier in the season.

The second reason: distinctive attributes of California’s climate. Warm autumns and winters combine with Santa Ana winds to give California a second, super-charged fire season that tends to hit the big, coastal urban centers harder than the summer season.

One study published in 2015 found that the Santa Ana season caused 80 percent of the economic losses between 1990 and 2010.