Western wildfires expected to intensify until the middle of the century
A new federal report describes climate change's role in the worsening severity of wildfires in the western United States.
The National Climate Assessment, which comes out every five years, finds fires are expected to get hotter, more destructive and more widespread until at least the middle of the century.
The report finds that warmer and drier conditions with prolonged droughts have contributed to pest outbreaks and tree death, leading to the build up of flammable material in forests.
Wildfires are happening at higher elevations as snowpacks and summer rain reduce. The total annual area burned, and the annual area burned by high-severity wildfires, has increased in the West about eightfold since 1985.
The report also notes that the impact of all this on human populations is significant because development has greatly expanded what is called the wildland-urban interface: areas where homes and other structures meet with wildland or forests.
Report author Emile Elias spoke about the Southwest at an online press conference.
"High severity wildfires are expected to continue in coming years. And these will place people, economies, ecosystems and water resources of the region at considerable risk," she said.
The report does also note that there are other causes of increased fire, including more than a century of government policy of fire suppression.
Nationwide, the U.S. Forest Service and local partners are now pursuing a policy of more prescribed burning, in addition to other fire mitigation techniques like thinning.
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said last week that in Fiscal Year 2023, the agency conducted more prescribed burning than any prior year in the history of the agency, just under 2 million acres.
Report author Elias also noted the role of ancestral and Indigenous practices in reducing fuel loads in forests: "both traditional land stewardship practices, cultural burning, and also the application of cultural fire."
In addition to facts and analysis, the report has artworks, including a work by artist Cara Despain made from the burnt debris of Western wildfires.