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Home > Natural Resources > Land Management for Sustainable Communities and Natural Resources > Forestry Investments for Sustainable Land Management

Earlier Snow Melts Affects Forest Fires in California and Rockies

Forest fire size and timing is affected by snow melt -- which is affected by global warming.

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Wild Fires Affect Forestry Investments

The authors of this scientific trend analysis of large forest fires in the Western US is based on a comprehensive database of large wildfires in western United States forests since 1970 which they compared with hydroclimatic and land-surface data.

Increased forest wildfire activity.

We found that the incidence of large wildfires in western forests increased in the mid-1980s (Fig. 1) [hereafter, "wildfires" refers to large-fire events (>400 ha) within forested areas only (26)]. Subsequently, wildfire frequency was nearly four times the average of 1970 to 1986, and the total area burned by these fires was more than six and a half times its previous level.

Large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. The greatest increases occurred in mid-elevation, Northern Rockies forests, where land-use histories have relatively little effect on fire risks and are strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt.

Forestry and Spring Water Supplies

Snow carries over a substantial portion of the winter precipitation that falls in western mountains, releasing it more gradually in late spring and early summer, providing an important contribution to spring and summer soil moisture. An earlier snowmelt can lead to an earlier, longer dry season, providing greater opportunities for large fires due both to the longer period in which ignitions could potentially occur and to the greater drying of soils and vegetation. Consequently, it is not surprising that the incidence of wildfires is strongly associated with snowmelt timing.

Most wildfires in the Southern Rockies and Southern California have also occurred in early snowmelt years, but again forest area there is small relative to the Northern Rockies and Northern California. Thus, although land-use history is an important factor for wildfire risks in specific forest types (such as some ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests), the broad-scale increase in wildfire frequency across the western United States has been driven primarily by sensitivity of fire regimes to recent changes in climate over a relatively large area.

Urgency of Fuels Management and Ecological Restoration

The overall importance of climate in wildfire activity underscores the urgency of ecological restoration and fuels management to reduce wildfire hazards to human communities and to mitigate ecological impacts of climate change in forests that have undergone substantial alterations due to past land uses.

Forestry Investments and Land Use

At the same time, however, large increases in wildfire driven by increased temperatures and earlier spring snowmelts in forests where land-use history had little impact on fire risks indicates that ecological restoration and fuels management alone will not be sufficient to reverse current wildfire trends.

Read the complete research report of California and Western US forest fire trends:
SOURCE: Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity A. L. Westerling,1,2* H. G. Hidalgo,1 D. R. Cayan,1,3 T. W. Swetnam

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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