Large fires in the western U.S. — such as those currently raging in Colorado and New Mexico – may be part of a shifting pattern of wildfire risk brought on by climate change, according to a study led by researchers at UC Berkeley.
The study, published Tuesday in the journal Ecosphere, analyzed the results of 16 different global climate change models. The models included variables such as annual precipitation and mean temperature of the warmest month and projected an increase in the frequency of fires across the majority of North America and much of Europe within the next 30 years.
“In the long run, we found what most fear — increasing fire activity across large parts of the planet,” said study lead author Max Moritz, a fire specialist with UC Berkeley, in a press release. “But the speed and extent to which some of these changes may happen is surprising.”
While the models diverge in their predictions for certain parts of the world, there was wide agreement about a growing fire risk in the western United States, a conclusion that supports other recent studies.
Moritz said the findings do not account for short-term shifts in the climate, such those brought on by El Niño. He also cautioned against connecting the study’s results to, say, this week’s red flag warnings in northern California or the small weed fires that broke out this weekend in Milpitas and San Jose. Moritz pointed out these events are likely attributable to offshore winds – such as the Santa Anas and Diablos.
“None of these wind-related phenomena are built into our models,” said Moritz. “Like the El Niño signal, the global climate models do not give us good wind projections.”
However, he did offer a powerful takeaway message of the study to millions of Californians living in fire-prone areas.
“We don’t ‘fight’ earthquakes, floods or hurricanes. But we fight fire,” said Moritz. “The bottom line is that we need to learn to accommodate and coexist with this natural process, particularly in places like California. We need to learn how to build accordingly, to plan our neighborhoods and developments…And climate change is going to force our hand.”