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Dry Thunderstorms Causing Forest Fires in West - and California

Dry lightning and dry thunderstorms cause the majority of wildfires in the Western US. Understanding and working with desert ecosystems are high risk management strategies.

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California wildfires June 2008

Forestry Management to Prevent Forest Fires

Dry thunderstorms are common to the western United States—and they start many wildfires

More than 8,000 lightning strikes have initiated more than 1,000 wildfires in Northern and Central California during the June, 2008 wildfire season. Check CAL FIRE for updates

Red Flag Warnings have been issued for dry thunderstorm activity in the Northern Sierra Nevada and Southern Cascade Mountain Ranges in northeastern California. The priority of firefighting is for the protection of life, property and natural resources.

The impact of wildfires are paralyzing to communities -- and prevention is the better part of valor. Endangerment of lives, evacuations, highway closures, wildlife impact, domestic animal impact...air quality for vulnerable citizens across the region as well as loss of property, carbon sequestration of our major Western forests...cost of firefighting and many more costs make fire a critical risk management issue.

Looking at the causes of wildfires is the start of risk management. We often think of arson as a major cause of fire -- but when you have natural terrain that depends on snow melts and desert ecosystem conditions, arson takes a back seat. But climate change is roaring to the front of high risk factors. Rapid melting of snow pack is increasing. Drought cycles are strengthening.

Forestry Management To Reduce Wildfire Risk

Lightning strikes are the cause behind the majority of western wildfires, and of the 240 large wildfires set off by lightning in the summers of 2004 and 2005, more than half happened when the probability of dry lightning occurring was great than 75 percent.

Dry thunderstorms are generated when enough moisture from the Gulfs of Mexico and California is drawn over an area to form stormy clouds at high levels of the atmosphere. But because the air below the clouds is still dry, most of the rain that falls evaporates before the water can quench the parched landscape below.

These lighting producing thunderstorms often form high above earth's surface with a large layer of extremely dry air between the base of the cloud formation and the ground. When rain falls from the cloud into the dry air, the raindrops evaporate before they reach the ground.

But flashes of lightning still reach ground level. This dry thunderstorm lightning can start fires in dry woods and the fires spread rapidly because no rain is available to slow the wildfires.

Global Warming Fuels U.S. Forest Fires

An increase in wildfire activity has been correlated with rising seasonal temperatures and the earlier arrival of spring, a Scripps study concludes.

A database of 1,166 forest wildfires from 1970 to 2003 in the western United States were compared by researchers for the number and potency of wildfires to spring and summer temperatures and the timing of snowmelts.

Wildfire season and potency increased "suddenly and dramatically" in the late 1980's, according to scientist and co-author Dan Cayan, director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography's Climate Research Division.

Cayan and colleagues noted that in the mid 1980's there was a jump of four times the average number of wildfires in the West compared with the early 1980's and 1970's.

The researchers also found that 56 percent of the wildfires and 72 percent of the total burnt area occurred during the years when the snow melted early.

Coauthor Anthony Westerling of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, explains that "With the snowmelt coming out a month earlier, areas then get drier earlier overall and there is a longer season in which a fire can be started—there's more opportunity for ignition."

Carbon Sequestration and Forestry Management for Climate Change

The country's western forests, which traditionally act as storage "sinks" for sequestering 20 to 40 percent of all U.S. carbon output, are now transforming into a source of atmospheric carbon dioxide as they burn up, the authors write.


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