CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES: Santa Barbara, Calif., is under siege from wildfires today, as conditions resembling late summer more than mid-spring fuel infernos spanning 500 acres that have forced the evacuation of more than 13,000 people from 5,000 homes. The fires exploded on Wednesday thanks to triple-digit temperatures and 50 mph winds known as "sundowners," which race down the slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains toward the shore. The nearly 1,000 firefighters battling the blaze received a break this morning as the winds calmed down, but California is still issuing a high-wind warning through Friday, predicting that gusts could reach up to 65 mph. (Sources: Los Angeles TimesAPBBC News)

TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF: Contrary to how it would seem, global warming doesn't necessarily make wildfires worse, according to a new study. USA Today's Doyle Rice reports that despite creating hotter and drier conditions — like what's happening in Santa Barbara right now — climate change also transforms a region's vegetation enough to counteract the conditions that favor more fires. For example, Alaska transitioned from a cool, dry climate to a warm, dry climate about 10,500 years ago, but wildfires actually went down because vegetation also changed from flammable shrubs to fire-resistant deciduous trees. Despite these findings, however, wildfires may still make global warming worse. (Sources: USA TodayReuters)

HOT AND BOTHERED: The only American animal yet protected under the Endangered Species Act due to the effects of climate change is the polar bear, but it may soon have company. A furry, warm-natured rabbit relative called the American pika is struggling in the Rockies and the Great Basin as temperatures warm — its dense fur, slow reproductivity and thermal regulation system are all primed for chilly, alpine conditions that are increasingly scarce in its habitat. Even brief exposure to temperatures of 78ºF or warmer can kill the small pika, which has tried to move north in some areas but is running out of room, scientists say. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has responded to the pika's plight, announcing Wednesday that it will launch an in-depth review of the situation and submit findings by Feb. 1, 2010. (Sources: Associated Press, New York Times)

REGENERATION: While Chrysler works through bankruptcy and General Motors scrambles to avoid it, Ford Motor Co. is plugging onward in its own effort to reinvent itself. The Detroit automaker announced plans Wednesday to spend $550 million revamping a truck plant in Wayne, Mich., to produce 2 million small, fuel-efficient cars per year. Once the birthplace of hulking SUVs, the plant will now churn out the next-generation Focus, due out next year, and a battery-electric version of the Focus designed for the North American market and expected to debut in 2011 — creating 3,200 jobs in the process. The company called its move "a critical step toward the commercialization and ultimately the acceptance of electric vehicles." (Sources: Huffington Post, AP)

THE GOOD CHINA: China is ready to "do business" with developed nations to reach an agreement about replacing the Kyoto treaty, the Guardian reports today. The top U.K. climate secretary met with senior Chinese officials in Beijing this week and came away with the impression that the world's main emitter of greenhouse gases is warming up to coordinated action. Negotiations at this December's U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, are largely seen as hanging on the participation of China and the United States, the world's two largest contributors to global warming. U.S. officials issued a formal notice earlier this week committing to reaching a compromise in Copenhagen. (Sources: GuardianAP)

HOBBIT FORMING: A smattering of ancient human remains found in caves on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 really are from a new species, researchers reported Wednesday. The tiny Homo floresiensis, aka "hobbits," were much smaller than modern humans and seemed more primitive in many ways, but were also found among stone tools and other artifacts indicating they were smarter than their brain size suggests. Arguments raged for years over whether the fossils represented a new species of human — which would have lived in isolated island caves as recently as 8,000 years ago — or merely normal humans who suffered from microencephaly or some other shrinking condition. By studying their feet instead of their craniums, though, researchers discovered that the hobbits probably branched off from other humans even before Homo erectus, the forefather of modern humanity. (Source: Agence France-Presse)

LION EYES: An inspiring story about a hero dog saving its owner from an attacking mountain lion may be an exaggeration, according to California wildlife officials. A man and his wife camping in the Cleveland National Forest said they were jumped by a cougar but that their dog intercepted the cat, taking a mauling but saving their lives. After surveying the scene and studying the evidence, however, officials say the dog — named "Hoagie" — actually attacked the mountain lion, and was lucky it wasn't eaten. "The report we got was that the dog went up to a mountain lion and the mountain lion ran away and the dog chased it and was mauled," a state official says. (Source: LA Times)

Russell McLendon

(Photo: Keith Cullom/AP)