More, Greater Wildfires in the North American West
Billings Gazette (Billings, Montana)
Thursday, September 25, 2008.
Researchers: Expect more wildfires
By BRETT FRENCH
Of The Gazette Staff
JACKSON – 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
“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
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.
Climate change creates a vicious cycle of events.
As humans continue to increase the amount of
greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or even
maintain the current output, carbon builds up and
temperatures gradually increase.
According to researcher Morgan Varner, the effect
of elevated C02 is a “dramatic” increase in plant
biomass across almost all species of plants. That
same increase also decreases the decomposition
rates of litter on forest floors. Such litter
provides the fine fuels that “drive and sustain
fires,” Varner said. And with more litter come
increased flame heights and burn time.
With fires shown to increase the release of
carbon into the atmosphere, in addition to
removing vegetation that sequesters carbon from
the atmosphere, the cycle seems to be ruthless
and difficult to halt.
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
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
“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
“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
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
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