Why Wildfire Seasons Are Likely to Get Longer and More Devestating

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Lone Camp Volunteer Fire Department fire fighter Ted Hale fights a wildfire on September 1, 2011 in Graford, Texas.

Wildfire season across the American West is getting longer, and more destructive year by year, according to a new report from the research organization Climate Central.

Noting that the total area burned in the American West this year is 30 percent larger than average, the report blames recent ferociously destructive fire seasons on a variety of factors: fire suppression and forest growth have created more fuel for fires; and a gradual warming in global temperatures that’s creating longer and longer wildfire seasons.

“We can’t discount the importance of the broader climate context,” Dr. Heidi Cullen, Climate Central’s Chief Climatologists, said in a conference call presenting the report.

The study finds that unless there’s a reversal in climate change trends, wildfire seasons across the West are expected to worsen.

“The National Research Council reports that for every degree Celsius (1.8oF) of temperature increase, the size of the area burned in the Western U.S. could quadruple,” the report says. “On average, wildfires burn twice as much land area each year as they did 40 years ago.  In the past decade, the average annual burn area on Forest Service land in the West has exceeded 2 million acres — more than all of Yellowstone National Park.”

This graph from the report illustrates the sharp climb in wildfires that have burned more than a 1,000 acres over the last forty years:

While the study looks at states along the Rocky Mountains and further west, researchers say the trends could also apply to the case of Texas, which saw some of the worst wildfires in the state’s history last year.

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