Global climate change and its resulting impacts are the focus of much scientific study. Faith Ann Heinsch, PhD, a physical scientistt at the USDA Forest Service, was the featured speaker at today’s opening session of the NFPA’s Backyards & Beyond conference in Salt Lake City, where she reviewed the science of climate change and projected impacts on wildfires.
Does climate change cause wildland fires? The simple answer, for now, said Dr. Heinsch, is “no”. The typical causes of wildfire are the ones we’re familiar with: arson, accidents, lightning, downed power lines, etc. A better question, she said, is in what ways is climate change likely to affect wildland fire.
The greatest challenge in the coming decades, said Dr. Heinsch, will be the extremes. “We’re expecting to see hotter temperatures and drier years, and we expect that these hot, dry conditions will result in more fires, an increase in fire intensity, and fire severity,” she said.
With more frequent and severe wildland fires, how do communities prepare for and adapt to this shifting landscape?
“It’s going to take everyone – individuals, communities, agencies, and state- and federal-level organizations – working together,” while also allowing ecosystems to adapt to the changing climate, as it has done naturally for thousands of years. she said. “One thing we can do through education is to work to reduce the number of human-caused ignitions of wildfires."
There are also several national strategies already underway, including the Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy, a project involving government and non-governmental organizations, as well as the public, working together to seek solutions to wildland fire management issues.
Another initiative, the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Project, encourages a science-based approach to restoring forests while being sensitive to ecological, economic, and social sustainability issues.
Dr. Heinsch also underscored the importance of the fire adapted community approach, where members of a community take responsibility for its wildfire risk. Actions address resident safety, homes, neighborhoods, businesses and infrastructure, forests, parks, open spaces, and other community assets. The more actions a community takes, the more fire adapted it becomes.
There is no “one size fits all” approach, said Dr. Heinsch, but by working collaboratively, we can better manage and keep wildfires on the landscape and make our communities as safe as possible.