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Wildfire activity is expected to intensify in the Pacific Northwest

In recent research led by Oregon State University (OSU), scientists have found that the forests situated in the chilliest and dampest regions of the western Pacific Northwest are poised for a significant uptick in wildfire incidents due to the ongoing shifts towards a warmer and drier climate. 

The study emphasizes the urgent need for strategic planning to adapt to these anticipated changes in fire patterns.

Notable increase in wildfire activity

The experts conducted simulations across over 23 million acres of forest west of the Cascade Range in Oregon and Washington. 

Lead author Alex Dye, a faculty research associate at the OSU College of Forestry, alongside U.S. Forest Service collaborators, forecasts a notable increase in wildfire activity for the 2035-2065 period. 

According to Dye, Washington’s North Cascades region, the Olympic Mountains, the Puget Lowlands and the western Oregon Cascades are likely to see at least twice as much fire activity as was observed during the prior 30 years.

Far-reaching consequences 

The findings have major socio-ecological implications since forests in all of the affected areas are linchpins of a variety of socio-ecological systems in the Northwest. Thus, there are far-reaching consequences of increased fire frequency on water, timber, biodiversity, and carbon storage.

Challenging assessment 

The study sheds light on the Pacific Northwest‘s “Westside,” contrasting its fire regimes with those of more frequently burned areas like California or eastern Oregon. 

“The moist, highly productive forests of the Northwest don’t get fire as often as other parts of the West, like California or eastern Oregon,” Dye said. “But fire does naturally occur in the PNW ‘Westside’ as we call it – the fire regimes are actually quite complex in this region.”

“It can be challenging to assess fire probability in an environment where there isn’t a lot of empirical information about the fire history to build models.”

Critical questions 

The scientists aim to recalibrate focus towards the PNW Westside, historically overlooked in wildfire studies, especially in the wake of significant fires around Labor Day 2020 that showcased the potential devastation of severe wildfires in these regions.

Dye poses critical questions about the future frequency of such events under the influence of climate change: “And what if fires like that were to start happening more frequently in the near future?” he said. “What if that once every 200 years became once every 50 years, or once every 25 years as climate change brings hotter and drier conditions to the region?”

Study significance 

By highlighting climate as a pivotal factor in wildfire dynamics, Dye underscores the importance of this study as a planning tool for the Northwest, preparing for an acceleration in fire activity. 

“Describing the possibilities of how, when and where climate change could affect fire regimes helps bracket everyone’s expectations,” said Dye.

“Particularly important among our findings are new insights into the possibility of shifts towards more frequent and large fires, especially those greater than 40,000 hectares as well as shifts toward more fires burning at the beginning of fall when extreme weather has the potential to increase fire spread.”

The study is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Geosciences.

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