Climate change brings potential for 'megafires'

2015-07-29 | Moscow-Pullman Daily News

July 29--The Northwest may become a hot spot for "megafires" in the future, according to a recent study at the University of Idaho.

The study found atmospheric conditions, such as high temperatures, low fuel moisture and long-term drought, that have historically led to massive fires are likely to occur both earlier and later than usual in the future, said Renaud Barbero, a research associate at Newcastle University and postdoctoral researcher at the UI.

Barbero and UI Department of Geography Associate Professor John Abatzoglou teamed up to conduct the study looking at how climate change is affecting fire seasons and the potential for large fires, like the Carlton Complex that burned through central Washington last year. The blaze was the largest in the state's recorded history and was responsible for destroying more than 300 homes.

Abatzoglou described "megafires" as large, charismatic fires that are often given names and burn for days or weeks on end. The study used models to simulate locations and timing of the largest fires during the past 30 years across the country, according to a UI press release on the study. Using the models, the team applied climate change projections, which indicated an increase in fire potential throughout the region.

Barbero said an increase in conditions conducive to megafires were noted in the study by the mid-21st century in the Western U.S., Florida and Northern Great Lakes. While the study looked at the nation as a whole, Abatzoglou said the Northwest region is one part of the country where there is a little bit stronger agreement of warmer temperatures and drying in the summer across the models.

"It's sort of a double whammy for fire," he said.

Abatzoglou said the study isn't necessarily predicting fires, but it indicates the potential for large blazes.

"When it comes to predicting a fire, you need vegetation, and you need that vegetation to be dry enough to carry a fire ... one thing that is really unknown is how ignitions are going to change," he said.

Abatzoglou said the study didn't separate lightning and human-caused fires.

"Most of the very large fires that we see in the Western U.S., outside of California, are lightning-caused," he said.

The probability to get megafires during the core of the fire season, July to August, is much higher under future climate predictions than they have been for the past three decades, Barbero said.

"In the Northwest, we are seeing a projection of warmer climates and less precipitation, which extends the risk throughout more of the year and more extreme risk for large fires," Abatzoglou said.

Barbero said the study highlights the regions and seasons at the highest risk, including the Northwest, so fire managers can focus adaptation efforts on those regions.

"We may not be able to reverse the rate of climate change, but we can try to mitigate large fire potential," Abatzoglou said.

Fire managers can look at potential fuel breaks, clearing fuels out or in some cases letting them burn, he said. Some large fires occur in areas that haven't burned for a long time and allowing them to burn out on their own or for longer periods of time may be a better tactic.

Samantha Malott can be reached at (208) 883-4639 or by email at