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Climate change and growth scenarios for California wildfire

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Large wildfire occurrence and burned area are modeled using hydroclimate and landsurface characteristics under a range of future climate and development scenarios. The range of uncertainty for future wildfire regimes is analyzed over two emissions pathways (the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios [SRES] A2 and B1 scenarios); three global climate models (Centre National de Recherches Météorologiques CM3, Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory CM2.1 and National Center for Atmospheric Research PCM1); three scenarios for future population growth and development footprint; and two thresholds for defining the wildland-urban interface relative to housing density. Results were assessed for three 30-year time periods centered on 2020, 2050, and 2085, relative to a 30-year reference period centered on 1975. Increases in wildfire burned area are anticipated for most scenarios, although the range of outcomes is large and increases with time. The increase in wildfire burned area associated with the higher emissions pathway (SRES A2) is substantial, with increases statewide ranging from 36% to 74% by 2085, and increases exceeding 100% in much of the forested areas of Northern California in every SRES A2 scenario by 2085.

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  1. Comprehensive data prior to 1980 are not available from some of these sources. Fire data after 1999 are available, but the hydrologic simulations forced with historic climate data used here were developed for the California Scenarios Project, of which this research is a component. These data ended in 1999, so the common period of overlap between the available fire history and the hydroclimatic data was 1980–1999.

  2. We show results for expected total area burned only, which are similar to predicted changes in large fire occurrence.


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Correspondence to A. L. Westerling.

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Westerling, A.L., Bryant, B.P., Preisler, H.K. et al. Climate change and growth scenarios for California wildfire. Climatic Change 109 (Suppl 1), 445–463 (2011).

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