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Scientists project sharply increasing wildfires in the American West

One recent study projects that wildfire burn area will increase significantly as the American West warms this century, with forests of the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains experiencing possible increases of 78% and 175% respectively.1 Another projects similar trends, indicating wildfire burn area in the West likely to be similar Canada’s expected increase of 74% to 118%.2 

However, changes in fire risk will not be uniform.3 4  Some areas may even see decreases in fire — due, for example, to shifts in flora toward sparser, less fuel-rich varieties typical of desert, semi-desert or other dry environments. In the other direction, the average yearly area burned by wildfire in Washington State is projected to be two to four times greater than last century’s baseline, by the end of this century.

The overall projections amplify a trend of increasing wildfires already underway, and linked to warmer temperatures and earlier snowmelt.

  1. Spracklen, D. V., L. J. Mickley, J. A. Logan, R. C. Hudman, R. Yevich, M. D. Flannigan, and A. L. Westerling. “Impacts of climate change from 2000 to 2050 on wildfire activity and carbonaceous aerosol concentrations in the western United States.” (PDF) J. Geophys. Res., 2009.
  2. Flannigan MD, Logan, KA, Amiro BD et al. (2005) "Future area burned in Canada." (Abstract) Climatic Change, 72,1-16.
  3. Krawchuk Meg A., Moritz, Max A., Parisien, Marc-Aandre, Van Dorn, Jeff, and Hayhoe, Katharine. “2009 Global Pyrogeography: the Current and Future Distribution of Wildfire.” (Full text) PLoS ONE 4(4). April 8, 2009.
  4. Westerling, A. L., and B. P. Bryant. “Climate change and wildfire in California.” (Abstract) Climate Change 87, no. Suppl1 (2008): S231-S249.