High Country News
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High Country News

Today’s wildfire modeling ‘just sucks’ for flames fueled by climate change

How scientists use models to understand blazes — and where those models fall short.

Over Labor Day weekend in the Pacific Northwest, high winds fanned wildfire ignitions in drought-ridden forests west of the Cascades. In a matter of hours, small fires erupted into about a dozen major blazes, destroying entire communities, displacing tens of thousands of residents and killing 10 people in Oregon and Washington.

The scale of the conflagrations, and the speed at which they grew, surprised even seasoned wildfire researchers. The scientific models used to predict and understand fires worked well in previous decades, but given current conditions across the West, trying to use them now “just sucks,” said David Saah, an environmental scientist at the University of San Francisco and a leader of the Pyregence Consortium, a team developing new wildfire models. “You know how we keep saying climate change is going to change everything? We’re there, we’re in it (and) we don’t know how to quantify it. We’re trying to figure it out.”

Izel Ramos-Gonzalez, 7, looks at the damage in her grandmother’s backyard in Phoenix, Oregon, after the Almeda Fire swept through the Southern part of the state in September. Photo by Alisha Jucevic

Fire has always been part of Western ecosystems; many animals and plants evolved to depend on periodic burns. And for thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have used fire to help keep forests healthy by reducing excess brush and encouraging new growth, a practice that continues today. But after a century of fire suppression — and with a rapidly changing climate that is drying out forests — Western wildfires are now much larger and more intense than before.

See the rest of the story — and the problem — here: https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.11/north-wildfire-todays-wildfire-modeling-just-sucks-for-flames-fueled-by-climate-change

Victoria Petersen is an intern at High Country News.

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High Country News

High Country News

Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.