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A Look Back Suggests More Catastrophic Fires ahead for Western U.S.

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A Look Back Suggests More Catastrophic Fires ahead for Western U.S.

Northern Arizona University

Catastrophic wildfires are on the rise in the western U.S. and a set of conditions may be contributing to a perfect storm for more fires, according to Northern Arizona University's (NAU) Scott Anderson, professor in the School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability.

Anderson said increased fuel loads in the forest are a result of fire suppression, a practice that, when combined with a projection of increasingly drier climates ahead, spells a recipe for increasing disaster for forested ecosystems.

While grazing and fire suppression have kept incidents of wildfires unusually low for most of the last century, the amounts of combustible biomass, temperatures and drought are all rising. The result, Anderson said, is a “fire deficit” in which current conditions and past fire suppression practices have pushed fire regimes out of equilibrium with climate.

“In the near future, since our forests and their fuel loads are not in balance with their natural fire regimens, we can expect to see additional huge fires such as last year’s Wallow Fire that burned 540,000 acres in Arizona and Las Conchas Fire that burned 156,000 acres in New Mexico,” he said.

Anderson and a team of researchers combined resources to examine existing records on charcoal deposits in lakebed sediments, which established a baseline of fire activity throughout the region. The team published its findings last week in the journal of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The full research study is available online.

“We were able to link fire to changing climate in the West for much of the last 3,000 years,” Anderson said. “With the increase of Euro-Americans in the West, the patterns began to change, first with large fires associated with indiscriminate land clearance, railroad construction and so on, then later with fire suppression.”

Wildfires have been debated for years as either a destructive force of nature that should be eradicated or natural disturbance that keep ecosystems healthy. National policy over the last century had been to respond rapidly to suppress all wildfires, but with increasing occurrence of catastrophic wildfires in the region such practices have come into question. In recent years local forest managers have been given more latitude to evaluate which fires to suppress while ensuring public safety.

Anderson’s research could lead the way to reshaping policy on wildfire response and natural resource management, but he cautioned such a change might be too little too late.

“The fire deficit situation is unsustainable, now and long into the future,” he said. “If it is not addressed quickly—and many of us believe it is too late already—it will likely lead to widespread and long-enduring changes in forest types across the West.”

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A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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