Cost of Southern California Fires to Top $1 Billion – What Role Do the Santa Ana Winds and Global Warming Play?

Fires rage in southern California. What role does global warming play?Losses the raging wildfires in San Diego county alone are expected to be at least $1 billion dollars.

With 1,500 homes destroyed and more than 500,000 people displaced, President Bush has declared the region a disaster area with many drawing comparisons with Hurricane Katrina (in terms of huge natural disasters – not necessarily the part about Bush’s response).

The fierce and feared Santa Ana winds have borne much of the blame for the unrelenting fires. But as Governor Swarchenegger almost offhandedly mentioned on national television yesterday, global warming may likely have a hand on the number and intensity of the fires.

Wait a minute, we’re going to blame the Santa Ana Winds on global warming?

Climate is Not Weather

As we all know, any particular local weather event can’t be unequivocally attributed to climate change – including the dreaded Santa Ana winds, which aren’t that unusual in any case.

But there is more going on here than just seasonal winds blowing through the southwest fanning the flames.

Scientists are increasingly alarmed at the rapid decline in both perennial and seasonal ice in the Arctic Sea (stay with me), and the hypothesis is that the retreating ice in the far north is changing weather patterns in the southwest, leading to the increased drought conditions we’re now experiencing in California and the southwest.

A report last Sunday on 60 minutes featured fire experts on the front lines telling of longer fire seasons (something those of us living in California are well aware), with more fires, and those fires increasingly turning into record-breaking mega-fires (some in excess of 600,000 acres) raging through an already parched and drought-stricken land.

When the Santa Ana winds blow in over a dry tinderbox landscape in the midst of an ongoing drought, a firestorm ensues.

One business sector taking these possibilites very seriously are insurance companies, with the International Association of Insurance Supervisors releasing findings last week (ironically) about insurer’s responses to global warming.

A billion here, a billion there; it adds up, and when the expected consequences of global warming match up with the empirical evidence, any good CEO in the business of insuring homes and businesses considered “at risk” is bound to take thoughtful notice.

So even if we can’t, or even shouldn’t, say with any certainty that “global warming is causing the fires”, nor should we bury our head in the sand and not try to see what is before us.

The writing is on the wall – or in the wind, as the case may be.

Tom Schueneman writes on environmental issues at and He is also the publisher of the History Blog Project.




Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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