SEATTLE – Anyone who lives in the western United States is familiar with the massive fires that rage every summer, and a new report said climate change has doubled the amount of acreage burned since 1984. Researchers from the University of Idaho and Columbia University found that further warming will accelerate the trend in the future.
Study co-author John Abatzoglou, a professor of geography at the University of Idaho, said climate change has increased what scientists call “fuel aridity.”
“Since climate change has basically shifted our fuels to be drier than they would have been in the absence of climate change, we use that relationship to get an estimate of the additional area that has burned due to man-made climate change,” he said.
The study found that natural variability in weather patterns has combined with climate change to compound the problem. Last year was the largest wildfire season in Washington state’s history, burning more than a million acres across the state.
Abatzoglou said his study focused on fires in forested areas, making the study especially relevant to the Northwest.
“It turns out that a lot of the forested area in the western United States tends to be in the Northwest, and in the Northwest the link between climate and fire is a bit stronger,” he added.
The authors support efforts to clear out dead wood to reduce the fuel load, but acknowledge that the matter is complex, because fallen trees provide important habitat for wildlife. In addition, successful firefighting techniques have “saved” some forests and allowed dead wood to pile up, thus making them more vulnerable to a mega-blaze.
The full report can be read here.
Eric Tegethoff is a journalist covering the Northwest. Eric has worked as a reporter for KBOO, XRAY FM, and Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, Oregon, as well as other print and digital news media. In 2012, Eric traveled to North Dakota to write about the Bakken region oil boom. He's also worked at a movie theater, as a campaign canvasser and quality assurance at a milk packaging factory. Eric is originally from Orlando, Florida. He graduated from the University of Florida in 2010.