Thanks in part to climate change, the American West will see more fiery summers


Firefighter Russell Mitchell at a fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., in 2013. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Wildfires are getting bigger and more frequent in the American West. It’s not your imagination.

And the summers ahead will bring more of them, even larger than the ones that came before.

That’s the conclusion of a new study for the American Geophysical Union (AGU) prepared by a team of researchers led by Philip Dennison, a geographer at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

The authors used satellite data to measure areas of more than 1,000 acres burned by large fires from Nebraska to California since 1984. They found that the total area consumed each year increased at a rate of about 90,000 acres per year through 2011. That’s a Las Vegas-size increase every year for almost two decades.

The hardest-hit areas were the Sierra Nevada and Arizona-New Mexico Mountains; the deserts of the Southwest; and the Southern Plains, across west Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and eastern Colorado.


A videographer at a fire in Yosemite National Park, Calif., in 2013. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The increase, they reported, corresponded with rising temperatures and increasing drought conditions in the West likely brought on by “large-scale climate changes.”

Since those conditions are projected to become more severe, so will the fires, the authors said.

Sierra Fire Protection District Captain Jay Cwiak (C) and firefighter Vince Pilcher (R) mop up hot spots just south of Reno, January 20, 2012. A wind-driven fire that raged through parched brush near Reno, Nevada, engulfing at least 20 homes and forcing residents and livestock to flee by the thousands, was 50 percent contained on Friday morning, officials said. REUTERS/Max Whittaker (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT) - RTR2WKWK
Sierra Fire Protection District Captain Jay Cwiak and firefighter Vince Pilcher at work south of Reno, Nev., in 2012. (Max Whittaker/Reuters)

Ironically, attempts to suppress fires over the past few decades are probably contributing to the increase in wildfires because there’s more fuel left to burn than naturally occurring fires would have left behind.

“It could be that our past fire suppression has caught up with us,” said Jeremy Littell of the U.S. Geological Survey on the AGU’s Web site.

The study is the first to use high-resolution satellite data to study fire trends over a broad variety of terrain, ranging from mountain forests to deserts and grasslands.

 


Satellite image of a 2011 fire in New Mexico shows 150,874 burned acres in magenta and unburned areas in green. (Philip Dennison/MTBS)
Fred Barbash, the editor of Morning Mix, is a former National Editor and London Bureau Chief for the Washington Post.
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