The frequency of large and severe wildfires has increased over recent decades in many regions across the Western U.S., including the Pacific and Inland Northwest. This increase is likely driven in large part by wildfire suppression, which has promoted fuel accumulation in western landscapes. Recent studies also suggest that anthropogenic climate change intensifies wildfire activity by increasing fuel aridity. However, the contribution of these drivers to observed changes in fire regime is not well quantified at regional scales. Understanding the relative influence of climate and fire suppression is crucial for both projecting the effects of climate change on future fire spread, and for developing site-specific fuel management strategies under a new climate paradigm. To quantify the extent to which fire suppression and climate change have contributed to increases in wildfire activity in the Pacific Northwest, we conduct a modeling experiment using the ecohydrologic model RHESSys and the coupled stochastic fire spread model WMFire. Specifically, we use historical climate inputs from GCMs, combined with fire suppression scenarios to gauge the extent to which these drivers promote the spread of severe wildfires in Johnson Creek, a large (565-km2) mixed-pine dominated subcatchment of the Southfork Salmon River; part of the larger Columbia River Basin. We run 500 model iterations for suppressed, intermediate, and unsuppressed fire management scenarios, both with and without climate change in a factorial design, focusing on fire spread surrounding two extreme fire years in Johnson Creek (1998 and 2007). After deriving fire spread “fingerprints” for each combination of possible drivers, we evaluate the extent to which these fingerprints match observations in the fire record. We expect that climate change plays a role in the spread of large and severe wildfires in Johnson Creek, but the magnitude of this effect is mediated by prior suppression. Preliminary results suggest that management strategies aimed at reducing the extent of contiguous even-aged fuels may help curtail climate-driven increases in wildfire severity in Pacific Northwest watersheds.
Hanan, E. J.; Tague, C.; Bart, R.R.; Kennedy, M.C.; Abatzoglou, J.T.; Kolden, C.; Adam, J. (2017): Effects of fire suppression under a changing climate in Pacific Northwest mixed-pine forests. Fall Meeting, American Geophysical Union, December 2017. Abstract GC51A-0794..