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Individual Highlight

Future Wildfire in the South will be Driven by Society as well as Climate Change

Photo of Wildfires in organic peat soils, like this one in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildfire Refuge, Virginia, USA, can burn for months and produce copious amounts of smoke. This fire, the Lateral West Fire, started on August 4, 2011 from a lightning strike. Mike Petruncio, North Carolina Forest Service.Wildfires in organic peat soils, like this one in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildfire Refuge, Virginia, USA, can burn for months and produce copious amounts of smoke. This fire, the Lateral West Fire, started on August 4, 2011 from a lightning strike. Mike Petruncio, North Carolina Forest Service.Snapshot : The area burned by wildfire is likely to change over the coming decades, report Forest Service scientists and their partners. The shifts are due to climate change and changes in land use, human populations, and economic activity. Across the southern U.S., the area burned by lightning-caused wildfire will probably increase by 34 percent, while the area burned by human-caused fires will decrease by 6 percent. The total will increase by 4 percent, with substantial variations across states, ecological regions, and wide uncertainty around these projected median levels.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Prestemon, Jeffrey P.  
Research Location : Research Triangle Park and Chapel Hill, N.C., Seattle, Wash.
Research Station : Southern Research Station (SRS)
Year : 2016
Highlight ID : 1191

Summary

Humans ignite more than 80 percent of wildfires in the southeastern 13 states of the United States. Projections of the future for the region, emerging from the Forest Service's 2010 Resources Planning Act (RPA) Assessment, indicate that human populations may grow by nearly 50 percent between 2006 and 2060, while forested area may decline. Forests will be under increasing pressure to support economic and recreational activities that sometimes spark fires; however, increased wealth in the region allows for greater economic resources to help reduce the occurrence and spread of fires that are ignited. In this study, Forest Service scientists used county-level data to create models of lightning fires and of human-caused fires. Projections of human society and climate were obtained from the 2010 RPA Assessment and applied to the statistical models to see how wildfire might change as a result of changes in society and climate. To understand how wildfire might behave in the future, analysts used simulation that accounted for uncertainties on how society will unfold and how unsure they were about the statistical model parameters. Results were presented at the state, ecoregion, and south-wide levels for both lighting and human-ignited wildfires. At the south-wide level, the scientists determined that the area burned by lightning fires would increase by 34 percent by the 2050s, while the area burned by human-caused fires would decline by 6 percent. However, results on these trends differed by state, ecoregion, and large bands of uncertainty were revealed. This study will inform new analyses on how wildfire changes could lead to changes in air quality in the region, an issue of critical importance to public health efforts.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

 
  • University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

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