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Study: Climate change would lead to increased fire activity

9:40 AM, Jun 27, 2012   |    comments
A new study suggests that climate change would alter fire patterns around the world.
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Climate change is likely to alter fire patterns around the world, including a potential increase in the number of fires for much of California in the next 30 years, according to a new study led by UC Berkeley researchers.

The study, published in Ecosphere, modeled projected climate changes and how those changes would affect fire activity. The Northern Hemisphere would see the largest increases in the frequency of wildfires, with some parts of the globe potentially seeing decreases, said Max A. Moritz, the study's lead author.

"We've set ourselves up for some pretty tough situations already, but I think climate change is really going to force us to deal with fire-prone landscapes in a substantial way," said Moritz, who teaches at UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

California's fire activity has leveled off since 2007-08, one of the most active periods in the state's recent history. More than 3 million acres burned during the two-year period, according to data from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. No year since then has had more than 500,000 acres of fire activity and 2010 had the fewest acres burned since 1991.

State and local fire agencies responded to twice as many forest and brush fires in the first six months of this year as they did in the first six months of 2011, said Dan Sendek, chief of the state's Cooperative Fire Protection. A 900-acre brush fire was contained outside San Diego last week and much of the southern portion of the state was under a "red flag warning," indicating conditions are ripe for fires.

"We had a relatively dry winter," Sendek said. "With the precursor we've had to date, all the indicators are we're set to have a very active season."

Moritz's report didn't look at yearly variations in fire activity or longer-term weather cycles, such as El Nino. The study looked at two 30-year periods and mapped climate change models based on averages for those time periods. The first time period, 2010-2039, showed significant changes in fire patterns across the models used in the study. Those changes increased during the second time period, 2070-2099.

Fire activity can be predicted based on two factors - how quickly vegetation accumulates and how hot an area gets, Moritz said. In areas that are already very hot and dry, an increase in temperature wouldn't necessarily mean an increased likelihood of fires, he said. In some cases, the increased temperature might decrease vegetation, decreasing fire activity.

"You can make the deserts as hot as you want. It's already plenty hot and dry there," he said. "That won't necessarily change fire activity."

Moritz said he thinks much of the world's population will need to change the way it approaches natural fires. It's a phenomenon that should be reviewed anyway, he said, but climate change increases the necessity.

"We've lost the ability to coexist with this natural process," Moritz said. "We've learned to coexist with other natural hazards ... floods, hurricanes. All of these we tend to approach differently than we do fire."

For example, he said, communities typically have 100- and 500-year flood plains mapped out. Zoning boards and developers assess the risk of building in those areas based on the known flood plains. Fire risk should be viewed in the same way, Moritz said. He said California is better than many states at looking at those trends, but all communities could do more.

"Where and how we build in those higher risk areas, I think that's something we have to take into consideration ... especially as we know there will be significant disruptions to fire activity because of climate change," he said.

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