Sierra Nevada climate changes feed monster — fire

Driving home from Lake Tahoe, Leah Wills watched the column of ash-gray smoke from the Moonlight fire grow and grow — until finally she was under it.

Overhead, the sky that September afternoon in 2007 turned eerie pink. Orange-red flecks of burning bark streaked like missiles through the air. And the smoke — eye-watering and acrid — was inescapable.

"It was like a nuclear cloud," said Wills, 59, a policy analyst for the Plumas County Flood Control District who lives near the tiny hamlet of Genesee. "I've been to Denali and Kilimanjaro. I grew up with tornadoes. I've seen some big things. I never saw anything that big in my life."

Wildfire has marched across the West for centuries. But no longer are major conflagrations fueled simply by heavy brush and timber. Now climate change is stoking the flames higher and hotter, too.

That view, common among firefighters, is reflected in new studies that tie changing patterns of heat and moisture in the western United States to an unprecedented rash of costly and destructive wildfires.

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