Climate change increases risk of wildfires in California

The hottest summer days in California’s Sierra Nevada dramatically increase the risk of wildfires igniting or spreading, and as the plan...


The hottest summer days in California’s Sierra Nevada dramatically increase the risk of wildfires igniting or spreading, and as the planet continues to heat up, the risks will increase even more, scientists said on Wednesday. .

The research, which looked at daily temperatures and data from nearly 450 fires in the Sierra Nevada from 2001 to 2020 and projected the analysis into the future, found that the number of fires could increase by about 20%. or more by the 2040s, and that total burned area could increase by about 25 percent or more.

The results “show how short events like heat waves impact fires,” said Aurora A. Gutierrez, a researcher at the University of California at Irvine and lead author of a paper describing the work in the journal Science Advances. “We were able to quantify that.

Regarding projections over the next two decades, she said: “We have hotter days and that is why the risk of fires increases in the future.”

Wildfires are increasing in size and intensity in the western United States, and wildfire seasons are lengthening. California in particular has suffered in recent years, including last summer when the Sierra Nevada experienced several large fires. One, the Dixie Fire, burned nearly a million acres and was the largest fire in state history.

Recent research has suggested that the heat and drought associated with global warming are the main reasons for the increase in larger and more powerful fires.

The findings of the new study are generally consistent with this earlier research, but there is one important difference. Most previous studies have looked at temperature and other aggregate data on monthly to annual time scales. The new research looked at the daily data.

“What makes this novel is that we were trying to identify the role of individual extremes of temperature on individual dates,” said Jim Randerson, lead author of the article and professor of Earth systems science at UC. Irvine.

Over the past 20 years, researchers have found that a 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degree Fahrenheit) increase in average summer temperature increases the risk of a fire starting on any given day by 19 to 22 percent, i.e. by human activity, or by lightning. , and increased the area burned by 22 to 25 percent.

Dr Randerson gave an example of why extremely hot weather can lead to more fires and spread more easily.

“If it’s a normal day, say 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and you accidentally create a spark and there’s an ignition, you can probably stomp on it, or the local fire departments can come and put it out,” did he declare. The vegetation still contains a significant amount of moisture that the heat of the fire must first evaporate. This slows down the spread of flames.

But on a 100-degree day, Dr Randerson said, the vegetation is so dry, with so little moisture to evaporate, that a fire quickly spreads and develops.

“You get a rapid expansion,” he said, “and ultimately a fire so big it can last for weeks and weeks.”

John Abatzoglou, who studies the influence of climate change on forest fires at the University of California at Merced, said the work “adds to the growing scientific literature on the potential for climate-related fires in forest fires. western forests ”.

“The observed and predicted rise in temperatures is worsening the pre-existing conditions, namely the build-up of fuel in our forest, to increase the risk of fire,” said Dr Abatzoglou, who was not involved in the study.

The researchers used weather data, averaged over the region, and fire data from two sources: Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which accurately records the onset of fires, and sensors on two NASA satellites able to measure the spread of fire on a daily basis.

For Ms Gutierrez, who worked in Dr Randerson’s lab during her undergraduate studies at Irvine and full-time there after graduating from her undergraduate degree in 2018, it meant struggling with a deluge of data for several. month.

But researching the link between daily extreme temperatures and wildfires was worth it, she said.

“We decided that was a question we had to ask,” Ms. Gutierrez said. “And yes, it’s a bit tedious with the amount of data we have to process, but it’s an important question.”

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