In the warming West, climate most significant factor in fanning wildfires’ flames

wildfiresStudy finds that climate’s influence on production, drying of fuels — not higher temperatures or longer fire seasons alone — critical determinant of Western wildfire burned area

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.

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