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US wildfire potential: a historical view and future projection using high-resolution climate data

Author(s): Emily K. Brown, Jiali Wang, Yan Feng
Year Published: 2021

Recent wildfires in the western United States have led to substantial economic losses and social stresses. There is a great concern that the new climatic state may further increase the intensity, duration, and frequency of wildfires. To examine temporal and spatial features of historical wildfire trends and future changes, a common fire index, the Keetch–Byram Drought Index (KBDI), is calculated over the contiguous United States (CONUS) and Alaska. We introduce an efficient initialization method and calculate 36 years (1982–2017) of historical KBDI at 4 km using a high-quality observational dataset. KBDIs are also calculated at 12 km using regional climate models and extended into the mid- and late-21st century. Based on the observational data, annual mean (and 95th percentile) KBDI over forested regions in the southwestern and northwestern CONUS has risen since 1982 at a rate of 5.2 (4.0) and 2.9 (3.3) per year, respectively, indicating a persistent drying trend fostering fire activities; the number of days exceeding the top 5% historical KBDI has increased by 16 and 25 d in the 36 years. Multiple regional climate model simulations project increasing wildfire potential and longer fire seasons over broader areas based on the estimated KBDI for the mid- and late-21st century. By the end of the century, most of the CONUS would experience about 90–189 more days per year exceeding the historical local maximum KBDI; areas with high KBDI (>600), whose occurrence correlates with large burned area, are projected to broaden by nearly 60 times in the southern CONUS. While both temperature and precipitation contribute to future KBDI changes, warming is the main driver of more frequent, intense and wide-spread extreme wildfires indicated by high KBDIs in future projections.

Citation: Brown EK, Wang J, and Feng Y. 2021. US wildfire potential: a historical view and future projection using high-resolution climate data. Environmental Research Letters 16 (3): 034060.
Topic(s): Fire History, Fire & Climate
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 22898
Record updated: Apr 7, 2021