Natural disasters like floods and hurricanes have been documented for years. But until recently, quality data on wildfires have been lacking.
When people started asking the question: Are wildfires becoming more prevalent? University of Colorado Boulder researchers decided to find out and in turn expanded the quality wildfire research available to scientists.
“We were working on improving the data so all scientists can use it,” said William Travis, deputy director of CU Boulder’s Earth Lab. Travis is the co-author of a wildfire research paper that published on Wednesday.
When it comes to studying climate or natural disasters, there are plenty of data or research on rainfall, snow or air quality. But the research on wildfires has not always been “research-grade,” Travis said.
“It’s not because it wasn’t important, but the data hadn’t come together. But it really helped when agencies and other researchers started collecting satellite data,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to measure. The data has gotten better.”
Now, CU Boulder’s wildfire paper adds to the collection of quality data scientists at or outside CU Boulder can use for their own wildfire research, Travis said.
The paper examines whether wildfires in the U.S. are growing in size, frequency and prevalence.
To answer that question, the study divided the country into three parts: East, West and the Great Plains.
From 2005 to 2018 the number of annual fires almost doubled in the West and East and quadrupled in the Great Plains compared to previous decades, according to the paper.
“There are years when no big fires happen, but if a big fire happens, it’s very likely another one is going to happen in the same year,” said Virginia Iglesias, lead author of the study.
During that same time period, the median annual area burned quadrupled in the West and grew by 620% in the Great Plains.
“In the East, things are a little different,” she said. “The annual area burned has not changed significantly, but the larger fires are getting bigger and this is an indication that things are already changing.”
The distance between burns across the country decreased after 2004, the paper said. Smaller distances can be expected from an increase in the number of fires. The research found that fires are not randomly distributed but burn in “hot spots” or areas with more fuel such as pine needles or buildings.
“To me, the big thing is that fires have become a symbol of climate change, and we imagine a future with lots of fires,” Iglesias said.
Travis said findings in the study will help other scientists who have also asked the question: Are the fires getting worse? It will also help them with their work to address the next question: Why are they getting worse?
“There is much more loss to come from wildfires,” he said. “The biggest losses are probably in our future.”