Burning Hot: 50 Years of U.S. Fire Weather

Climate Central has examined historical trends in fire weather — a combination of low humidity, high heat, and strong winds — across the U.S., using data from 476 weather stations to assess trends in 245 climate divisions spanning all 48 contiguous states over a 50-year period from 1973 to 2022.

Wildfire seasons have become longer and more intense, especially across the West, and the research also found that many parts of the East have experienced smaller but important increases in fire weather. Even small increases in the East — with almost 28 million homes in fire-prone areas — puts millions more people at increased risk. As the research intro points out, the same weather variables that influence fire weather and wildfire are factors that determine the safe use of prescribed fire, critical to reducing fuels and thus fire risk. More fire weather days means fewer windows for prescribed burning.

fire weather

The reports include both summaries and in-depth comparisons of Fifty Years of Fire Weather in the West (example: Some places, including parts of Texas, California, Oregon, and Washington, are experiencing fire weather more than twice as often now as in the early 1970s) and Fifty Years of Fire Weather in the East (example: New England has experienced a decrease in annual fire weather days, driven largely by fewer days in which the wind speed variable hit the analytical threshold). Reduced wind speeds could be partially attributed to a decrease in the temperature gradient between land and sea along the Gulf of Maine, as sea surface temperatures have warmed drastically due to climate change.

Climate Central’s new report, Wildfire Weather: Analyzing the 50-year shift across America, expands on wildfire risks and adaptation across the country. The full report discusses other key factors that influence wildfire, including fuels, other weather conditions, and human activity.

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8 thoughts on “Burning Hot: 50 Years of U.S. Fire Weather”

  1. Did they address the major changes in fire suppression tactics when public land management agencies started a let burn/manage fire policy?

  2. I haven’t had time to read the whole report today, Anton, but when did the fed agencies start that policy?

  3. In the late 1990s they were experimenting with it on several large fires, by 2008 it was the norm.

  4. Rx fire is very different than let burn/ managed wildfire. Managed fire is selecting a large perimeter around a going wildfire and the trying to manage that fire for days, sometimes weeks and months through all kinds of landscape fuel conditions and weather changes. The management tactics include a variety of ignition types including aerial ignition with drones and heli-torches. Ground ignition is also employed through drip torches, veri pistols, terra torches, etc. to burn out around private inholdings and the selected perimeter. Often the burn outs are very large sections of the landscapes within the selected “box” and they are prone to escaping the planned containment lines when the weather changes or resourcees become limited. A careful assessment of this practice would show that in many cases it caused great damage to the burned landscape including damage to wildlife and fisheries habitat and many rural communities.

  5. ANTON, Your comment, “A careful assessment of this practice would show that in many cases it caused great damage to the burned landscape including damage to wildlife and fisheries habitat and many rural communities,” is putting it mildly. The idea of “managed fire” may have had some merit at first. But given the new burning conditions with climate change, and the weak fire suppression inclinations of most national forests, way too much land has burned to keep that idea going now. I understand that the Klamath, the Shasta-Trinity, the Mendocino, and (I think) the Plumas N.F. has stated, NO more managed fire. Time will tell. For those who want more fire on the landscape–and most of us understand that is necessary–don’t worry. In this age of catastrophic fire, there will be plenty of acres burned, even with the best efforts at suppression. That’s why I believe that ALL early season fires should be put out ASAP. That way when we get to August–when fires are very hard to stop–the crews won’t be exhausted, scattered all over the West, and the skies won’t be filled with smoke so that air resources can’t be used. Thanks for your comments. This is a VERY IMPORTANT ISSUE.

  6. Murray Tayor,

    I agree with you. This is the most important public lands issue the Country has faced, ever. Let burn/managed wildfire has not worked and it will not work in the future. Stop it.

  7. Anton,
    Managed wildfire is a tool in the toolbox and is a good tool to use. It has been successful and will continue to be successful. It is not without risk of course but we will need to continue to manage fire when we have the opportunity. Prescribed fire is another great tool for us to use but unfortunately we will not be able to treat enough acres with rx fire alone. If we do not take the opportunity to manage fire, we will only kick the can down the road for more catastrophic fires and will not get the ecosystem back in balance. What most don’t understand is that the full fire suppression policy has been a failure. We are in our current situation in large part because of it. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fully suppress certain fire at certain times, but just like everything else, it is one tool in the toolbox.

What do you think?