Longer, Hotter Summers and Increased Human Activity = Increased Wildfire Risk

Blog Post created by ryan.quinn Employee on Apr 19, 2011

As I mentioned in my last post, wildfire is not just a problem in the Western U.S.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the US Forest Service’s Climate Change Resource Center project states that nationally we will continue to see a higher number of above average temperatures during summer months. In plain English, more hot days! Here in the northeast we are already seeing an increased number of days per year that average over 90 degrees. Researchers also predict that summers will be longer, due to earlier springs and less snowmelt, which extends the fire season window by 10-30%. Changes in precipitation also impacts vegetation. In the south and northeast, wetter means more vegetation growth. The more grass there is in the spring, the more dry grass there is in the fall. Another point to make is that the more extreme winter storms we see the more downed debris in the spring. Finally, less snowmelt means the less likely reservoirs will go into the season full, which can strain fire suppression resources.

The point here is that hazards have relationships. You can’t have severe storms of one kind without a disruption to the entire natural cycle. What does all of this have to do with planning? We wouldn’t have a problem if these fires happened in some remote uninhabited area. But more and more of us like to live in what we call the wildland urban interface, otherwise known in our fire circles as the WUI. The WUI is where vegetation, people and structures mix. These are also the same areas where we can expect fires to occur – either naturally or otherwise.

Highway 31 Fire (2) 
The picture (above) was taken in South Carolina during the fire known as the Highway 31 fire that burned through a neighborhood in North Myrtle Beach in 2009. In total it destroyed 76 homes and was caused by a man who was burning a pile of garbage on his property. In fact many of our fires are human caused  as a result of debris burning, power lines, train tracks, and of course arson. The more of us who live “out there,” the more likely we’ll see an increase in fires from increased human activity. So it’s not JUST climate change that could be responsible for catastrophic fires in the future – it’s also because there are more of us!

Next up, I will go into more detail on how land use planners can play a major role in addressing wildfire hazard through site planning and development decisions – stay tuned!