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Report: Western U.S. Scorched with Fires Due to Climate Change

A new report says climate change has caused forest fires to double in size in the West since 1984. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mountain-Prairie)
A new report says climate change has caused forest fires to double in size in the West since 1984. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mountain-Prairie)
October 12, 2016

HELENA, Mont. - Anyone who lives in the Western United States is familiar with the massive fires that rage every summer, and a new report says 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 the changing climate has increased what scientists call "fuel aridity."

"Since climate change has basically shifted our fuels to being drier than they would have been in the absence of climate change," he said, "we use that relationship to get an estimate of the additional area that has burned due to man-made climate change."

The study found that natural variability in weather patterns has combined with climate change to compound the problem. Last year, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation spent nearly $11 million fighting fires.

Abatzoglou said people in the West are going to have to live with the new reality of more forest fires.

"The takeaway is that large fire seasons are inevitable; climate change will make them even more inevitable," he said. "So, for people who live in the western United States that have to live in areas that burn or in airsheds that are filled with smoke, we need to find a way to cope with it - and one way to cope with it is by coping with climate change."

The authors also supported efforts to clear out dead wood to reduce the fuel load, but acknowledged 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-fire.

The access site for the report is at pnas.org.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT