Wildfire problem to increase in coming decades

Research projects substantial increases in area burned across western North America, with implications for land managers and policy makers.

Above: Projected change in annual area burned for the period 2010–2039, with red colors indicating areas with the greatest increase in area burned annually in wildfires, and dark blue the least.

By Susan McGinley, University of Arizona

The massive wildfires that burned in California, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, British Columbia and other parts of North America in 2017 in many cases exhibited a disturbing trend: a marked increase in the amount of area burned.

The Thomas Fire, which consumed 281,893 acres in California’s Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in December, was the largest in the state’s history. The Nazko Complex Fire in British Columbia burned more than 1 million acres, the largest ever recorded for the province.

Thomas Fire
Thomas Fire, Ventura, CA, Los Padres National Forest, 2017. USFS photo.

That trend will continue in coming decades across the western U.S. and northwestern Canada, though not uniformly, according to a recent study. UA professor Don Falk and Thomas Kitzberger from the Universidad Nacional del Comahue in Argentina, who started working on the research as a visiting scholar at the UA, were co-investigators on the study that also included Thomas Swetnam from the UA and Leroy Westerling of the University of California, Merced.

While it may have been an exceptional year in some respects, Falk’s and Kitzberger’s predictions suggest that years like 2017 are likely to become more common over time. States in the interior Western U.S., in particular, may be faced with large increases in total wildfire area burned, potentially beyond anything that has been experienced in the past.

Their research paper, “Direct and indirect climate controls predict heterogeneous early-mid 21st century wildfire burned area across western and boreal North America,” was published in the journal PLOS ONE in December as the 2017 fire season was ending. The results project where the greatest increases in area burned are likely to occur across the Western U.S. and Canada in coming decades. It suggests that large fires years such as the recent ones in southern and northern California may become more common.

A Model to Measure and Project Fire Activity

“We used 34 years of climate data to calibrate area burned in 1,500 grid cells across western North America, so we could capture the different ways that seasonal climate regulates fire in different regions,” said Falk, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The key measurement, annual area burned, is a combination of fire size, frequency and variability from year to year. Area burned does not necessarily indicate fire severity, the ecological effects in a burned area.

Taking into account geographic variation, the study data focused on fire occurrence, seasonal temperatures and snowpack. The seasonal climate variables that turned out to be driving the amount of area burned were summer temperatures during fire season, spring temperatures and rainfall, and winter temperatures. Winter and spring conditions regulate snowpack, which can delay the onset of the fire season.

The team built a statistical model for wildfire area burned in each of the grid cells studied, and then tested it with data for actual area burned since 2010 to validate their predictions. It did not project the extent of area burned beyond the mid-21st century, as climate and vegetation changes become more uncertain later in the century.

Findings for western and northern North America show that about half the states and provinces are projected to have a large increase — five or more times the current levels — in total wildfire area burned. Others may see smaller increases, indicating there is no “one-size-fits-all” model. Increases in area burned are unevenly distributed across the study area, with the strongest increases projected in the interior western region.

Heads-Up for Land Management

“Ultimately, this means that the large fire seasons of recent years, such as the one just ending, are likely to occur more frequently, affecting ecosystems, communities and public safety,” Falk said. “These will be billion-dollar fire years. We’re just not ready for fire impacts of this kind, including post-fire effects from flooding after fire.”

The total cost of the 2017 fires in California alone is projected to exceed $180 billion. This includes not only the immediate costs of firefighting, but also the much larger costs, including:

  • Landscape rehabilitation;
  • Medical and hospital costs;
  • Insurance losses and the costs of replacing thousands of homes and other buildings;
  • Lost economic productivity from the destruction of businesses;
  • Repair and replacement of key infrastructure such as roads, power lines and dams; and
  • Weeks of lost income by employees.

Across the U.S., public land managing agencies are being stretched to their limits by the current scale of wildfire. The U.S. Forest Service spends more than half of its entire budget on wildfire response, leaving little for other key elements of its mission such as recreation, ecosystem restoration, research and public education.

Knowing about future regional variation in the projected annual area burned can help land managers and policy makers prepare for the possibility of extremely large fire years. Falk pointed out that seasonal climate changes also are having the effect of making the fire season longer, so there is additional time for more acreage to burn. In years when seasonal climate drives lengthy fire seasons, fire management resources may be stretched to the limit.

“Wildfires act as a multiplier of other forces such as climate change, exposing more and more areas not only to the immediate effects of fire, but also to the resulting cascade of ecological, hydrological, economic and social consequences,” Falk said. “We hope that this research will be a wake-up call to public agencies and legislatures at all levels of government that the fire problem is not going to get any smaller in coming decades.

“If anything, we need a serious, fact-based national dialogue about how to sustain our forests and woodlands through smart management and policy.”

Spring arrives early in the Southwest, late in some areas

In Western Arizona and Southern California plants are greening up weeks earlier than usual

Spring has started to arrive in the southwest and southeast states. In southern Florida, spring is right on time compared to a long-term average (1981-2010), but parts of Texas, Louisiana, and northern Florida are one week late. In southern California and southwestern Arizona, spring is arriving 1-2 weeks early.

The timing of leaf-out, migration, flowering and other seasonal phenomena in many species is closely tied to local weather conditions and broad climatic patterns.

An early greenup, depending on weather later in the season, could mean herbaceous plants will become dormant and cure out earlier, which may result in a wildfire season in the lower elevations that begins sooner than average.

Source: USA National Phenology Network, www.usanpn.org

Report highlights links between wildfires, climate change and health

Pollution from fossil burel-burning sources is decreasing but the air is getting dirtier during the wildland fire season.

As a long and brutal fire season in California starts to wind down, Climate Central issued a report that lays out links between climate change, wildfire, and health effects.  The report, titled Western Wildfires Undermining Progress on Air Pollution, analyzes air quality trends from 2000 through 2016 in two large California air basins — the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley — that are heavily affected by pollution. 

The report finds that while the air quality continues to improve as pollution from power plants, trucks and other fossil fuel-burning sources declines, it is getting dirtier during the fire season. Studies have shown that fire seasons in the West are getting longer and that more large wildfires are breaking out as temperatures rise.

“We focused on an especially bad actor called “fine particulate matter”, or PM2.5 — particles that can reach deep into the lungs and exacerbate a wide array of health problems such as asthma, heart disease, and premature birth.  A lot of hard work has been done to decrease PM2.5 from other sources, so it’s troubling to see progress getting undercut by wildfires — and to know that a warming climate will likely have wildfires becoming more frequent and burning more area in California and the West,” said Todd Sanford, Ph.D. scientist with Climate Central.

Wildfire preparedness for a changing climate

States were evaluated for how ready they will be to manage and mitigate wildfires in coming decades.

Above: Wildfire preparedness, according to StatesAtRisk.org

Two organizations have collaborated to develop what they call America’s Preparedness Report Card (StatesAtRisk.org), laying out their scores for how America’s 50 states are preparing for a changing climate. They came up with ratings in five categories:

  • Extreme Heat
  • Drought
  • Wildfires
  • Inland Flooding
  • Coastal Flooding

According to their web site, ClimateCentral.org, one of the two organizations, is “An independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting the facts about our changing climate and its impact on the public.” The other, ICF International, is a private company that appears to offer a very broad range of consulting services.

We were most interested in their analysis of wildfire issues. The states colored gray on the map above are labeled “n/a”, which means wildfire was not identified as a threat. The methodology used was to determine the average number of days each year when the Keetch-Byram Drought Index exceeded 600. This was weighted by the county-level population living in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). They did not take into account fire history, the number of homes destroyed by fire, or vegetation.

We noticed, for example, that wildfire was not identified as a threat in Colorado in spite of the fact that in 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire burned more than 18,000 acres, destroyed 347 homes in Colorado Springs and killed two people. Almost exactly a year later, the Black Forest Fire ignited east of the city and burned more than 15,000 acres, 486 homes and killed two people.

Their map is different from the ones below created by the U.S. Forest Service (showing the frequency of wildfires greater than 299 acres from 1994 to 2013) and FEMA’s map of wildfire hazard potential.

map wildfires by county

2014 Wildfire Hazard Potential

In looking at two other states, Alabama was given an “F” in wildfire preparedness while California earned an “A”.

The list of factors that were considered in determining the grades included:

  • Current wildfire vulnerability assessments and hazard mitigation and emergency response plans;
  • Guidelines or requirements for resilient activities (e.g., construction);
  • Wildfire adaptation policy or guidelines;
  • Communication with residents about mitigating for wildfire.

Below are graphical wildfire preparedness summaries from StatesAtRisk.org for Alabama and California:

Continue reading “Wildfire preparedness for a changing climate”

Climate change and the wildfires in Chile

During the current statistical period which runs from July through June wildfires in Chile have burned 601,367Ha (1.5 million acres) which is 924 percent of average for the entire 12-month period. That fact alone does not prove anything but it can trigger a need to look at the factors involved.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Huffington Post:

Santiago, Chile and Los Angeles, California lie roughly the same distance from the equator and are subject to the same climatological forces. Both areas have endured years of record-breaking drought that has thinned forests and desiccated farms. In the summer heat, when winds pick up, fires can start easily and spread rapidly through dried vegetation.

For this, blame climate change. Heat-trapping carbon pollution is driving temperatures up across the globe, setting the conditions for severe heat, persistent dry spells and a high risk of fire. A recent study found that 25 percent of central Chile’s rainfall deficit could be attributed to human-caused climate change. Consistent with planetary warming, Chile is breaking heat records right and left. California is doing the same.

In looking at the chart above, increased emissions of greenhouse gasses did not CAUSE the fires in Chile, but it is possible that their effects created an environment that made it possible for wildfires, once ignited, to spread more quickly than they would have otherwise, and were more resistant to control.

Research: Wildfires in Sierra Nevada driven by past land use

Changes in human uses of the land have had a large impact on fire activity in California’s Sierra Nevada since 1600, according to research by a University of Arizona researcher and her colleagues.

Above: Indian Canyon Fire near Edgemont, SD, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

By Mari N. Jensen, University of Arizona College of Science

Forest fire activity in California’s Sierra Nevada since 1600 has been influenced more by how humans used the land than by climate, according to new research led by University of Arizona and Penn State scientists.

For the years 1600 to 2015, the team found four periods, each lasting at least 55 years, where the frequency and extent of forest fires clearly differed from the time period before or after.

However, the shifts from one fire regime to another did not correspond to changes in temperature or moisture or other climate patterns until temperatures started rising in the 1980s.

“We were expecting to find climatic drivers,” said lead co-author Valerie Trouet, a UA associate professor of dendrochronology. “We didn’t find them.”

Instead, the team found the fire regimes corresponded to different types of human occupation and use of the land: the pre-settlement period to the Spanish colonial period; the colonial period to the California Gold Rush; the Gold Rush to the Smokey Bear/fire suppression period; and the Smokey Bear/fire suppression era to present.

“The fire regime shifts we see are linked to the land-use changes that took place at the same time,” Trouet said.

“We knew about the Smokey Bear effect — there had been a dramatic shift in the fire regime all over the Western U.S. with fire suppression. We didn’t know about these other earlier regimes,” she said. “It turns out humans — through land-use change — have been influencing and modulating fire for much longer than we anticipated.”

Continue reading “Research: Wildfires in Sierra Nevada driven by past land use”