Researchers: Expect more fires

From the Billings Gazette:

JACKSON, WYOMING – Now might be a good time to get into the firefighting business.

If science and history are a guide, the world and particularly the Rocky Mountain West are poised on the cusp of a dangerous increase in the size and frequency of large fires, caused by a warming climate.

“By the end of this century we’re expecting the area in Canada that burns to double,” said Mike Flannigan, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service. “Others say it will be a change of three to five times. It looks pretty gloomy.”

An increasing risk of large fires may not be news to landowners and homeowners who have been scorched by recent blazes. But speakers at a conference here Wednesday put a finer point on the idea, backing it up with reams of charts and boat loads of scientific research outlined in PowerPoint presentations.

El Cariso Hot Shots catch their breath after being chased out of a fire on the San Bernardino National Forest, 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Flannigan is one of many researchers who spoke Wednesday at a weeklong conference titled “The ’88 Fires, Yellowstone and Beyond,” co-sponsored by the National Park Service and the International Association of Wildland Fire. Many of Wednesday’s talks focused on climate change and its effects on wildfires.

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Based on data already compiled, the West is on the front of a rising curve for more large fires. Research by Anthony Westerling, of the University of California-Merced, showed that fires more than 500 acres in size have increased by 300 percent since 1985 on National Park Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs lands.

Westerling examined how rising temperatures have affected earlier spring runoffs and in many cases led to warmer, drier summers. His studies showed that between 1970 and 2008, there has been a 78-day increase in the fire season. The average burn time for fires has risen from one week to five weeks.

Projecting his data into the future, Westerling sees the average fire year between 2072 and 2099 looking similar in moisture deficit to Yellowstone National Park in 1988, when 794,000 acres burned.

“This is assuming we keep producing as much CO2,” he said. “I can’t get a sense of how you would manage yourself out of this change.”

Fire managers note that they’re already seeing unusual fire behavior.

Steve Frye, of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said, “We are experiencing extreme, aggressive fire behavior in places where we haven’t in the past,” including fires at elevations and in fuel types where fires didn’t used to burn.

Fighting such fires has become more complicated, he said, thanks in large part to the construction of houses near forests, which he called “the single largest challenge and change for fire managers in the last 20 years.”

Meanwhile, firefighting agencies have had to deal with a decline in the number of firefighters and equipment used to battle blazes. Agencies would need twice the resources they now have to keep fires at current levels, something that’s not going to happen. So fire managers have had to adapt.

“We are making better decisions in how we assign our resources,” Frye said. “But we’re also assigning units to protection that could be used elsewhere.”

Flannigan, the Canadian researcher, said the situation north of the border could well apply to the Western United States.

“It’s almost a given that we’ll see more fire activity, more ignitions,” he said. “This is a global problem, and it’s going to require global solutions.”