Where the Wildfires Are

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Where the Wildfires Are
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Although a bit of an outlier, the 2017 Thomas Fire was still part of a multi-decadal trend of increasingly severe wildfires (Photo: Mike Eliason / SBC Fire Dept)

By Harrison Tasoff, UC Santa Barbara

It’s clear to most citizens of the Golden State that wildfires have become more intense over the last few years. But how much more? That’s a difficult question, because when it comes to science, you can’t study what you can’t measure.

That’s where researchers at UC Santa Barbara and the Nature Conservancy come in. They have compiled a new dataset of damage caused by wildfires in California as part of a broader project on future land use in the state. The report illustrates how the recent set of severe fires fits into a broader trend of increasing burn area and damage over the past 40 years.

“It occurred to us to these data would be of interest to a lot of people, so we decided to write them up in a brief,” said coauthor Andrew Plantinga, an economics professor at the university’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. The report is available on the Environmental Market Solutions Lab website.

The team analyzed two sources of data from Cal Fire, the state agency in charge of fire-fighting. The first was a dataset on fire perimeters and the second included estimates of wildfire damages for each fire.

The researchers used the information to calculate trends involving the number and timing of fires throughout the state by time of year. They also calculated the total area burned and specifically identified the amount of wildland urban-interface burned. These are areas where houses intermingle with wildland vegetation, and are of particular concern to those studying wildfire.

“The main finding is that the recent severe fires in California — including the Thomas fire in 2017 and the Camp fire in 2018 — are part of a trend in California over the past four decades,” Plantinga said. “The trend is toward more wildfires that burn larger areas and cause more damage.”

The number of acres burned per year has not only been increasing, the report found, it is also accelerating. And this increase isn’t only during the season’s peak, from June through October. The state is also seeing a longer fire season, with more acres burned in late fall than in the past. And while greater burn areas don’t automatically translate to greater damages, the researchers found that these, too, have been on the rise.

“I expected the recent severe fires to be outliers, and they are,” said Plantinga, “but it’s also clear that they represent part of a trend toward larger and more damaging fires.”

The report is part of a larger effort to estimate the costs associated with a business-as-usual approach to development in California, when considering the potential impacts of climate change. The team had previously found that interventions on natural and working lands — like forests, farms and rangelands — can contribute 2.5 times the emissions reductions by 2050 as residential and commercial sectors combined.

What’s more, for every dollar spent on implementing land-use strategies, close to fifty cents would be recouped in economic benefits. And that’s without accounting for other positive impacts, the previous reportstates.

Rather than another deep analysis, the group’s recent publication mostly served to aggregate and summarize important information on fire trends. “Our goal was to put the numbers out there and let people draw their own conclusions,” Plantinga said, adding that the group does not plan to recommend particular actions or propose factors that may be causing the trend. “Nevertheless, we think the data are an important input to policy discussions and to future research.”

news.ucsb.edu

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a-1591050064 May 24, 2020 12:49 AM
Where the Wildfires Are

Climate change would have no effect on fire regime if humans stopped causing fires. These studies never mention that every major fire in Southern California in the last 100 years has been human caused. Whether by accident or intentionally. Fires are more frequent and cause so much damage for one reason, more people. More people and infrastructure in areas where they never existed before. Continuing to push the urban boundary further into the mountains is a recipe for disaster. These fires will continue to ravage our local communities, not because of drought, not because of climate change, not because of hotter stronger winds, but because of careless, ignorant people, utility companies who have not maintained their equipment, homeowners with overgrown brush, homes constructed with flammable building materials., or the moron who throws a lit cigarette out the window and last but not least arson.

Luvaduck May 24, 2020 07:51 AM
Where the Wildfires Are

Some were caused by poorly maintained electric lines in remote areas. It'll take a while to deal with that, but the recent law suits may have put a bug in the ear of the electric companies--may even strength the idea of communities/business/home-owners providing more of the energy they use by local renewables. Sun, water, wind, tides--whatever there is. (Might hae to figure out a way to pay off the boards & executives of the current power providers, though.)

goletatim May 23, 2020 10:15 PM
Where the Wildfires Are

Wildfires may be more intense because less fires occur now than in the past. Higher intensity may be due to more fuel availability. Could it be that fires '40 years ago' and more were more frequent and\or burned a larger area when not 'fought' by humans?

SYRadio May 23, 2020 06:33 PM
Where the Wildfires Are

Covid 19will have an impact on firefighting. Around 40% of hand crews are prison inmates and prisons remain hot spots for virus infections. Transporting crews to fires will be complicated as they will not be able to ride packed into crew buses. Setting up fire camps will be complicated by the need for social distancing. Finally, the reliance on mutual aid assistance will be impacted because cities and counties will be reluctant to deplete their local resources in times of extreme fire danger. In recent fires in Los Angeles and Ventura counties mutual aid requests went unfilled.

Luvaduck May 24, 2020 07:55 AM
Where the Wildfires Are

Really? Do you have that last on good authority? Not being snarky; that's serious, and I can posit situations where it might be true.

a-1591050064 May 23, 2020 05:05 PM
Where the Wildfires Are

I did a study for zero cost that had no scientific measures, which perfectly explains this whole "uptick" of wildfires in our state: ................California population 1980 = approx. 24 million ...........2020 = approx. 40 million................as a bonus, my study concludes that we also have had a huge surge in births, deaths, overdoses, prison population, homelessness, addictions, mental illness, consumption of alcohol/drugs/donuts/chips, and (drum roll) Arson! Maybe I'll get the Nobel Obviousness Prize.

Luvaduck May 24, 2020 07:57 AM
Where the Wildfires Are

During that time some of the building has been in flood plains or smack against wilderness areas with windy roads, too.

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