Western US to see rise in simultaneous wildfires, study predicts

November 6, 2023
wildfire firefighters

A new study has revealed an uptick in the frequency of simultaneous large wildfires in the Western United States, which could pose significant challenges to firefighting efforts in the future.

The research, published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire, was a collaborative effort between the University of Washington and the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education and led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

Simultaneous wildfire seasons to double in severity

According to the study, wildfire seasons that involve multiple fires exceeding 1,000 acres are projected to become more common, with the severity and frequency of these events potentially doubling by the century’s end.

Lead NCAR scientist Seth McGinnis stated: “Higher temperatures and drier conditions will greatly increase the risk of simultaneous wildfires throughout the West.”

He further emphasized that: “The worst seasons for simultaneous fires are the ones that are going to increase the most in the future.”

Climate change’s impact on firefighting resource management

This study highlights the implications of climate change on wildfires that occur concurrently, a situation that typically demands more firefighting resources than individual fires.

McGinnis explained the complexity of managing simultaneous fires: “Simultaneous fires are a bigger challenge to manage than a number of fires burning one after another.”

The study’s insights are critical as they underscore the heightened demand on firefighting resources when multiple large-scale fires rage at once.

Researchers analyzed past fire incidents and correlated them with atmospheric condition data to predict future simultaneous wildfire occurrences.

Their findings indicate a consistent increase in these events across the West, with the most significant impact predicted for the northern Rocky Mountains.

The study also anticipates longer peak seasons for simultaneous wildfires by the century’s end, stretching the availability of firefighting crews and equipment further.

The assumption underpinning the study’s forecasts is the continuation of high greenhouse gas emissions under the RCP 8.5 scenario.

However, McGinnis pointed out that steps can be taken to manage the risk: proactive measures include forest thinning, prescribed burns, and bolstering firefighting resources.

FSJA Comment

The recent findings by McGinnis and colleagues shape a new perspective on wildfire management under changing climatic conditions.

The shift to planning for simultaneous wildfires rather than isolated incidents will challenge current resource allocation strategies and require robust policy changes.

Acknowledging the inevitability of more frequent and severe fire seasons calls for a re-evaluation of firefighting preparedness, including crew deployment, equipment availability, and inter-regional coordination.

Additionally, the potential extension of peak wildfire seasons necessitates a closer look at international firefighting aid and how shifts in the global climate may affect these cooperative efforts.

The study is a stark reminder of the real-world implications of climate science on public safety and emergency management protocols.

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