Study Synthesizes What Climate Change Means for Northwest Wildfires

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A University of Washington study published in Fire Ecology paints a comprehensive picture of future wildfires in the Northwest. This review was done in response to a survey of stakeholder needs by the Northwest CASC. State, federal, and tribal resource managers need more information on the available science about fire and climate change.

Read the original Press Release published by the University of Washington.

A University of Washington study that was published in Fire Ecology paints a comprehensive picture of future wildfires in the Northwest, specifically Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana. Recent years have brought large, damaging, and costly wildfires to the Northwest and raised concern about their frequency in the future. It is not possible to predict exact locations of future wildfires, but it is possible to predict, based on historical and contemporary fire records, which forests are more likely to burn than others. Models can then help determine where climate change will likely increase the frequency of fires. David Peterson, professor at the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences says, “we’re on the cusp of some big changes. We expect that droughts will become more common, and the interaction of climate and fire could look very different by the mid-21st century... Starting the process of adapting to those changes now will give us a better chance of protecting forest resources in the future.”

Researchers found that low-elevation ponderosa pine forests, which already have the highest fire risk today, also have the highest increase in risk due to climate change. Wildfires in these forests, found on the east side of the Cascade Range, are predicted to become larger and more frequent. As the region continues to experience drought, warmer temperatures, and insect outbreaks, most coniferous forests – such as those on the Olympic Peninsula, in Western Washington, and in Northern Idaho – will also likely burn more frequently, but these fires won’t necessarily be larger than they were in the past. The authors conclude with some potential strategies to prepare for these future threats. These include reducing hazardous fuels, promoting species that can survive fire and drought, and increasing diversity of species and structures across the landscape.

This study was funded in part by the NW CASC project “Changing Fires, Changing Forests: The Effects of Climate Change on Wildfire Patterns and Forests in the Pacific Northwest”.

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(Credit: Kari Greer, USDA . Public domain.)