Western wildfires expected to intensify over the next 10 years before declining, UCSB research says

Aug 16, 2021

New research led by scientists at UC Santa Barbara and the University of Washington suggests Western wildfires are likely to intensify over the next 10 years before experiencing a gradual decline.

The research looks at the long-term future of wildfires, assuming we continue to see increased temperature and drought exacerbated by climate change.

Naomi Tague is the co-author of the study and a professor at UCSB. She used a model that focuses on eastern forests in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.

Tague said the increase in fires we have seen in recent years is likely not a new normal for California.

According to CalFire, six of the seven largest wildfires in the state have occurred in the past year. The Dixie Fire is currently burning in the Sierras in Northern California. It burned about 570,000 acres as of August 16 and was 31 percent contained. CalFire lists the blaze as the second largest single wildfire in state history.

Tague said the research suggests that we are at the beginning of a decade-long burst of wildfire activity that could change the landscape enough to reduce the size of recurring fires in the future.

“I think one of the things we show for this watershed in the Sierras is that with a little bit of warming and increased drought, initially we are going to get bigger, more severe fires,” Tague said. “But [if] you have more of those fires [and] you have warmer drier conditions, the vegetation itself starts to change. It grows back more slowly. Eventually you would get into a place where you start to become fuel limited and you may have less fire.”

Because the model focuses on fires in the Sierras, Tague said it’s tough to predict exactly what conditions may look like across the West. She said it’s dependent on the landscape and conditions.

Tague said this expected outcome doesn’t necessarily mean we should just let the fires burn and lay off of fire mitigation tactics. She said fuel treatments, like forest thinning or prescribed burning are still a good measure in some places, but we shouldn’t expect them to be a cure-all.

“I think it makes sense to do fuel treatments in some places. But at the same time, to think that we’re gonna ‘fuel-treatment’ our way out of this is just wrong,” Tague said. “And pushing forward that illusion is not good for society.”

Tague said fire preparedness needs to be front-of-mind in the next 10 years as we see wildfires intensify.

“We have to be able to get people out of communities. We have to think about building codes. We have to think about fire resistant housing development,” Tague said. “The way we live with earthquakes, we have to live with fire for the next decade.”

The study was published in the Journal Ecosphere. It was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service.

For more information about active wildfire incidents across the state, visit fire.ca.gov.