What data shows was different about the 2015 Wildfire season

This wildfire season has definitely seen a different trend. Not necessarily a massive overall national increase in fire, but definitely a change in WHERE the fires did occur. For instance, in Colorado, it has been a VERY tame season, where of course the Pacific Northwest has seen a very busy season.

Climate data shows Jet Stream blocks due to Sea Ice changes

Changes in Sea ice modeling shows how it impacts jet streams. This causes changes in patterns of where precipitation falls. Areas with less will have less soil moisture. Areas thus with lots of fuels have even higher chance to catch fire and the opposite is true for areas with higher precipitation events due to the shift.

This year has seen the combination of El Niño and higher Arctic Sea Ice melt, this has caused major “waves” in the jet stream which is sending precipitation above the US west coast into Canada before coming back down in Eastern Montana on the Rocky Mountain Eastern Front Range. This video explains how these jet stream “waves” are causing longer periods of local precipitation patterns due to these “longer waves” camping over those areas – causing longer times of either drought, high precipitation events, or just nice weather for those lucky regions.

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You can explore the Daily analysis of the Precipitation, Clouds, Sea Ice at the Climate Change Institure Re-Analyzer:

Fire data shows built-up fuels are the major issue:

To pile onto massive changes in soil moisture, there is an even bigger problem which is clearly human-caused which has caused these larger fires: HIGH FUELS.

For multiple decades, though changes started in the 1960s thrugh 1990s, our national forest management policy has been to put out fires as soon as possible. This stops the natural cycle of nature to “get a haircut” and thin the forest. New smaller trees grow which can cause flames to leap frog into the upper tree canopy. Also, species usually in low concentration have increased where the tree canopy creates more shade creating even more dense forests.  On top of that, in other areas, policy has directed to run prescribed burns to lessen fuels. This is good in some areas, but in other areas, where natural species take years and years to grow, and rapid invasive-growing species take their place and actually creates more fuels (i.e. chapparal).

The United States actually has more trees than a century ago even during this era of great human expansion and double the population. People hoping for reduction in greenhouse gases applaud this approach, while unfortunately, nature is fighting fire with fire.  This article reviews raw NIFC Wildfire data showing fire statistics overall were not that much higher nationally and are following expected trends, yet it points out how the concentration of fire in the Northwest was more to due to with legacy forest management issues causing higher fuels. The article is more pragmatically than holistically analyzed, but its point is fair. So, with higher chance of fire due to low soil moisture, combined with higher fuels, you get larger fires. The fuels clearly increase the fire size and our overall vulnerability.

Later in the season, Fires are more northern as the Jet Stream shift lessens soil moisture in the Northwest

A month prior, Northern California had a head start due to its lower soil moisture earlier in the season

This Carousel of the August 27th back through June 26th wildfire season shows the changes of the fire clustering from Northern California to Northern Pacific Northwest (in reverse).

These are simple stories, but the simple visuals and interesting science behind it show a more complex picture.

If the issue was fuels alone, the change in where the fires would happen more would not be such a major difference as this is a national forest management issue. It is clear the change in soil moisture due to the jet stream changes are a major cause in the pattern disruption. While the jet stream and sea ice data show more predictive indicators of precipitation, clouds, soil moisture, and Sea Ice, the Wildfire data shows the lagging indicators as a result of the fire especially where increased drought and higher fuels.

Bringing these two worlds together more will hopefully help improve the overall models and help with policy decisions both in forest management and decisions due to the climate changing. Wildland Fire Management approaches are slowly changing balancing the movement of homes into the forests or WUI and allowing and directing fires to burn where can keep structural, public and firefighter safety under lower risk. Budgets to fight these fires are in the several billion dollars a year, requiring several tens of thousands of people and hundreds of aging and limited major equipment to fight these events. Each event brings high risk and can cost in the millions to multiple tens of millions to battle. As well, each bring ancillary impacts in air quality, safety, evacuations, commerce impacts, etc.

Are we too far behind in forest management policy to spend those monies on forest management suppression activities in pre-event situations where there is much less risk to structural, public, and firefighter safety?

Then, there is the larger issue of adapting to or addressing trends of climate change. This is unfortunately and clearly not in near cross-stakeholder group alignment any time soon.

The true question is can we move to data-driven policy and government decisions and are the models clear and simple enough to help make changes to generations of infrastructure built on completely different societal approaches.