Quantcast

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

Climate

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.”

For more information, click here.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A roller coaster on the Jersey Shore flooded after Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Hurricane_Sandy_New_Jersey_Pier.jpg: Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen / U.S. Air Force / New Jersey National Guard / CC BY 2.0

New Jersey will be the first state in the U.S. to require builders to take the climate crisis into consideration before seeking permission for a project.

Read More
The Director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu speaks on Jan. 26 during a press briefing on studying the 2019-nCoV coronavirus and developing a vaccine to prevent it. Roman Balandin / TASS / Getty Images

Editor's note: The coronavirus that started in Wuhan has sickened more than 4,000 people and killed at least 100 in China as of Jan. 27, 2020. Thailand and Hong Kong each have reported eight confirmed cases, and five people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with the illness. People are hoping for a vaccine to slow the spread of the disease.

Read More
Sponsored
Healthline ranks Samoas, seen above, as the 11th healthiest Girl Scout Cookie. brian / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

By Nancy Schimelpfening

  • Nutrition experts say healthy eating is about making good choices most of the time.
  • Treats like cookies can be eaten in moderation.
  • Information like total calories, saturated fat, and added sugars can be used to compare which foods are relatively healthier.
  • However, it's also important to savor and enjoy what you're eating so you don't feel deprived.

Yes, we know. Cookies aren't considered a "healthy" food by any stretch of the imagination.

Read More
Actress Jane Fonda is arrested during the "Fire Drill Friday" Climate Change Protest on Oct. 25, 2019 in Washington, DC. John Lamparski / Getty Images

When you see an actor in handcuffs, they're usually filming a movie. But when Jane Fonda, Ted Danson, Sally Field, and other celebrities were arrested in Washington, D.C., last fall, the only cameras rolling were from the news media.

Read More
A solitary Dungeness crab sits in the foreground, at low tide on an overcast day. The crabs' shells are dissolving because of ocean acidification on the West Coast. Claudia_Kuenkel / iStock / Getty Images

As the Pacific Ocean becomes more acidic, Dungeness crabs, which live in coastal areas, are seeing their shells eaten away, according to a new study commissioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Read More