New study: climate influences AND drying of fuels are most significant

New information is available about how climate change and precipitation affect fire occurrence. But you will have to pay at least $20 to have limited access to it.

Apparently the only way to read the entire report, produced by government employees from the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Washington and paid for by taxpayers, is to buy it from esajournals at a minimum cost of “$20 for 30 days”. This is just wrong. This data should be in the public domain and the property of the citizens that paid for the research, not a private company.

If esajournals wants the exclusive rights to this information, THEY should pay for the research, not the taxpayers. But the dirty little secret is that most likely the government agencies that funded the research also paid esajournals hundreds or thousands of dollars in “page charges” for the privilege of allowing the research to be printed in the private publication…where the public can’t benefit from it.

Why do taxpayers pay these scientists if their work products are not available to taxpayers? The U.S. Forest Service, the University of Washington, and the authors, Jeremy S. Littell, Donald McKenzie, David L. Peterson, and Anthony L. Westerling, need to find a way to make this taxpayer-owned information available to the taxpayers.

To be fair, there are other professional journals that have the same policy, including the International Journal of Wildland Fire. Taxpayer-funded researchers pay the journals to print their papers. Before the Internet existed, publishing papers in a paper journal was the only way to distribute new-found knowledge. But paper, or subscription-only journals have outlived their usefulness. Today a scientific paper can be distributed within seconds over the Internet at virtually no cost to the researchers. We no longer need fee-based journals, however many of them do have a peer-review process which can weed out the lower quality papers.

Here is a summary of the new research paper from ScienceDaily:

The recent increase in area burned by wildfires in the Western United States is a product not of higher temperatures or longer fire seasons alone, but a complex relationship between climate and fuels that varies among different ecosystems, according to a study conducted by U.S. Forest Service and university scientists. The study is the most detailed examination of wildfire in the United States to date and appears in the current issue of the journal Ecological Applications.

“We found that what matters most in accounting for large wildfires in the Western United States is how climate influences the build up—or production—and drying of fuels,” said Jeremy Littell, a research scientist with the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group and lead investigator of the study. “Climate affects fuels in different ecosystems differently, meaning that future wildfire size and, likely, severity depends on interactions between climate and fuel availability and production.”

To explore climate-fire relationships, the scientists used fire data from 1916 to 2003 for 19 ecosystem types in 11 Western States to construct models of total wildfire area burned. They then compared these fire models with monthly state divisional climate data.

The study confirmed what scientists have long observed: that low precipitation and high temperatures dry out fuels and result in significant fire years, a pattern that dominates the northern and mountainous portions of the West. But it also provided new insight on the relationship between climate and fire, such as Western shrublands’ and grasslands’ requirement for high precipitation one year followed by dry conditions the next to produce fuels sufficient to result in large wildfires.

The study revealed that climate influences the likelihood of large fires by controlling the drying of existing fuels in forests and the production of fuels in more arid ecosystems. The influence of climate leading up to a fire season depends on whether the ecosystem is more forested or more like a woodland or shrubland.

“These data tell us that the effectiveness of fuel reductions in reducing area burned may vary in different parts of the country,” said David L. Peterson, a research biologist with the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station and one of the study’s authors. “With this information, managers can design treatments appropriate for specific climate-fire relationships and prioritize efforts where they can realize the most benefit.”

Findings from the study suggest that, as the climate continues to warm, more area can be expected to burn, at least in northern portions of the West, corroborating what researchers have projected in previous studies. In addition, cooler, wetter areas that are relatively fire-free today, such as the west side of the Cascade Range, may be more prone to fire by mid-century if climate projections hold and weather becomes more extreme.

Thanks Dick