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Warming and earlier spring increase western U.S. forest wildfire activity

Author(s): Anthony L. Westerling, Hugo G. Hidalgo, Daniel R. Cayan, Thomas W. Swetnam
Year Published: 2006

Western United States forest wildfire activity is widely thought to have increased in recent decades, but surprisingly, the extent of recent changes has never been systematically documented. Nor has it been established to what degree climate may be driving regional changes in wildfire. Much of the public and scientific discussion of changes in western United States wildfire has focused rather on the effects of 19th and 20th century land-use history. We compiled a comprehensive database of large wildfires in western United States forests since 1970 and compared it to hydro-climatic and land-surface data. Here, we show that large wildfire activity increased suddenly and dramatically 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.

Citation: Westerling, Anthony L.; Hidalgo, H.G.; Cayan, Daniel R.; Swetnam, Thomas W. 2006. Warming and earlier spring increase western U.S. forest wildfire activity. Science. 313(5789):940-943.
Topic(s): Fire Behavior, Weather, Fire History
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 8397
FRAMES RCS number: 8402
Record updated: May 15, 2018