Climate change has doubled the area burned by forest fires

A report out today says acres burned in forest fires in the West have doubled since 1984 because of climate change. (ellend1022/iStockophoto)

Suzanne Potter
California News Service

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Anyone who lives in the western United States is familiar with the massive fires that rage every summer, and a report out Monday 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 this trend in the future. Study co-author John Abatzoglou, a professor of geography at the University of Idaho, said climate change has increased what scientists call “fuel aridity.”

“Since climate change has basically shifted our fuels to be drier than they would have been in the absence of climate change,” Abatzoglou 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. Statistics show that more than 8,700 wildland fires burned almost 900,000 acres in California in 2015.

Abatzoglou said the acreage that has burned in the Western U.S. since 1984 due to climate change equals an area more than three times the size of Los Angeles County.

“We estimate that right around 16,000 additional square miles has burned as a result of man-made climate change,” Abatzoglou said, “which is just under about half of the total amount over the last 32 years.”

The study’s authors support efforts to clear out dead wood to reduce the fuel load, but acknowledge that the matter is complex because fallen trees can provide important habitats 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-blaze.