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Report: Warmer Temperatures Double Wildfires in West

Climate change has doubled the area affected by Western U.S. forest fires, according to new research. (Pixabay)
Climate change has doubled the area affected by Western U.S. forest fires, according to new research. (Pixabay)
October 17, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Climate change due to human activity has doubled the area hit by forest fires in western states, according to a new Columbia University and University of Idaho study.

Report co-author John Abatzoglou says since 1984, rising temperatures and drier conditions caused fires to spread to 16,000 square miles more than normal – an area the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

He predicts even bigger fires could be in store for coming decades.

"We're no longer waiting for climate change, it's already here,” he stresses. “We expect more of these large-fire years like we've seen as the signal from climate change continues to grow."

Abatzoglou explains warmer air creates ideal wildfire conditions by removing moisture from trees, plants and soil.

The research says average forest temperatures in some parts of the West have gone up by nearly 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, and are expected to keep rising.

Abatzoglou says the study is the first to put numbers to the claims made about larger fires by fire chiefs and public officials, including California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has called intense wildfires “the new normal.”

Abatzoglou adds the impacts go beyond the loss of trees and wildlife habitat.

"The smoke impacts can be chronic,” he explains. “If you have a forest fire burning for a month and if you're downstream of that, you can have degraded air quality and that can have chronic health effects."

Abatzoglou says one strategy moving forward could be to stop fighting some fires during wetter years, so dry fuel doesn't build up and lead to more catastrophic blazes in drier years.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - WY