By Ian Schwartz

TUOLUMNE COUNTY (CBS13) – After seeing the flames and breathing the smoke, it’s hard to think fires like the Rim Fire could get much worse. But one researcher says if everything falls into place, this is just the beginning for the Sierra.

We have dry conditions and poor snowpack, add in a couple more factors and UC Davis scientists say we’ll see blazes that make the Rim Fire look like a camp fire.

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For anyone who lives near the fire, or has watched the flames tower on TV, you know it’s one of the worst fires we’ve seen in a long time.

“When you look at the Rim Fire and because it’s close to Yosemite we think ‘there’s the big one.’ Well that’s not really the big one,” said UC Davis plant ecologist Mark Schwartz.

Schwartz does research on Sierra fire conditions and says mountain fires in the future will burn longer, hotter and eat up more land.

“We’ve seen temperatures increasing in the Sierra, particularly warmer night time temperatures, and that resulted in decreased snowpack,” said Schwartz.

The dry snowpack leads to bone dry and brittle brush for flames to devour. It’s something seen in the Rim Fire for more than a week.

“That accompanied by about century of fire suppression has lead to a lot of areas that are ready to burn in the Sierra Nevada,” said Schwartz.

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Fortunately, Schwartz says, invasive pests like beetles have stayed out of the Sierra so far. The insects eat the inside of trees and make it even easier for them to go up in flames.

“That hasn’t happened on a big scale in the Sierras, yet,” said Schwartz. “If that happens on a big scale, we’ll be in a lot of trouble.”

Another problem is a growing population, people and homes in fire prone areas can lead to accidental fires.

“Cal Fire and the firefighters spend a lot of time protecting houses that are built in zones that are inherently flammable,” said Schwartz.

So what’s the solution?

Schwartz says some thinning could help reduce the fire risk, but it’s a delicate topic. Many endangered species make homes in the low brush that helps forest fires spread.

UC Davis researchers say some major U.S. wildfires dwarf the Rim Fire. In 1988, a wildfire burned nearly 800,000 acres in Yellowstone National Park.

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The Rim Fire is now the eleventh largest fire in California history.