The Impact of Climate Change on Wildfire Severity: A Regional Forecast for Northern California

Abstract

We estimated the impact of climatic change on wildland fire and suppression effectiveness in northern California by linking general circulation model output to local weather and fire records and projecting fire outcomes with an initial-attack suppression model. The warmer and windier conditions corresponding to a 2 × CO2 climate scenario produced fires that burned more intensely and spread faster in most locations. Despite enhancement of fire suppression efforts, the number of escaped fires (those exceeding initial containment limits) increased 51% in the south San Francisco Bay area, 125% in the Sierra Nevada, and did not change on the north coast. Changes in area burned by contained fires were 41%, 41% and –8%, respectively. When interpolated to most of northern California's wildlands, these results translate to an average annual increase of 114 escapes (a doubling of the current frequency) and an additional 5,000 hectares (a 50% increase) burned by contained fires. On average, the fire return intervals in grass and brush vegetation types were cut in half. The estimates reported represent a minimum expected change, or best-case forecast. In addition to the increased suppression costs and economic damages, changes in fire severity of this magnitude would have widespread impacts on vegetation distribution, forest condition, and carbon storage, and greatly increase the risk to property, natural resources and human life.

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Fried, J.S., Torn, M.S. & Mills, E. The Impact of Climate Change on Wildfire Severity: A Regional Forecast for Northern California. Climatic Change 64, 169–191 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1023/B:CLIM.0000024667.89579.ed

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Keywords

  • Fire Protection
  • Initial Attack
  • Fire Suppression
  • Return Interval
  • Wildland Fire