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Daniel Ziegenbusch

Severe weather, atmosphere 1010

Class project


Wildfires in the Western United States

In this paper I will discussing wildfires and what fuels them, the frequency of wildfires,

and how it is affecting peoples lives in the Western United States. Also how climate change and

human intervention is affecting and altering wildfires.

Wildfire- is a fire that is combusted and burns out of control in a forest, or area with

dense vegetation such as mountains, foothills, and grasslands. Wildfires are a very ancient

force, dating back all the way to 420 million years ago. This has been proven through fossil

records of ancient terrestrial plants. Fire has been a pivotal force in the evolution of mankind,

providing us with the means to cook meat high in proteins and there for break down their

enzymes, making it easier to digest. Wildfires have a very natural way of being ignited,

typically through dry thunderstorms that produce very little moisture but a lot of lightning

strikes, or through human beings. Most fires started by humans are accidental such as

controlled burning gone wrong, or miss placed cigarette butts, and camp fires unintended.

Although, some are started intentionally through dubious and malicious intent.

Wildfires are very common in the Southwestern United states. The reason for this is the

type of environment that fuels wildfires is very prominent in the Southwest. Topography,
weather, and fuel sources combined can create the perfect environment for sparking wildfires.

The Topography of the Southwestern United States is very mountainous and is an arid climate.

The Sierra Nevada has peaks taller than 14,000 feet and relies heavily on snow pack for

moisture. It is also plentiful in vegetation and fuel sources; ponderosa pine trees, sugar pine,

and digger pines, are all great accelerants for forest fires. The sap of the pine tree is what

makes it very flammable. Furthermore, human intervention and decades of combating forest

fires, has left underlying complications. Overgrown and condensed forests have left an

abundant amount of dry dead wood to help fuel forest fires.

Weather in the southwest can be very dry with little moisture and warm desert breezes.

The Santa Ana winds are very dry and down sloping. Santa Ana winds originate in the great

basin and push westward into Southern California and Baja California. These winds are

notorious for fueling and accelerating wildfires.

In the foothills and mountainous areas of the southwestern region of the United States

provides a perfect platform for wild fires. In addition to wind channeling, solar exposure, and

fuel sources, moisture is very low, and fuel density is high; all of which provide the perfect

conditions for wildfires to succeed. Wildfires are also a diurnal force, meaning they are more

powerful and rage more intensely during the day hours, specifically about 3:00pm. The reason

why this occurs is because of the low dew, and moisture levels being burned off in the day time

hours, drying the vegetation and trees that fuel a wildfire.

“Natural cycles and human activities, such as land use (clearing, development, mining),

fire exclusion, and climate change can influence the likelihood of wildfires. However, many of
the areas that have seen these increases, such as Yosemite National Park and the Northern

Rockies—are protected from or relatively unaffected by human land-use and behaviors. This

suggests that climate change is a major factor driving the increase in wildfires.” (1) Westerling

Climate change and global warming will continue having an impact on wildfires in the

Southwestern United States. As the earth increases in temperature; droughts and lack of

moisture will continue to plague California and many Southwestern states, increasing forest fire

frequency and intensity. Scientists also expect for snowpack levels to start to decrease in

mountain ranges in the Southwest. Snow pack levels play a pivotal and vital role in mountain

ecosystems, providing moisture and water for most of the year. With less snow pack and less

water for plants and trees they will begin to dry up, providing more deadfall for wildfires to

consume as a fuel source.

Human beings and mother nature are always trying to find homeostasis. Where do we

draw the line on letting forest fires rage or taking action and subduing large blazes? If at all

possible, human beings should try to avoid building homes and infrastructure in heavily

forested areas in the Southwestern United States. Potential for disaster is to great, and with

the frequency of forest fires expected to increase in the foreseeable future, be very couscous

where you build your next home or cabin. Forest fires have caused mass of mounts of

monetary and property loses. 2017 has been one of the most active wildfire years on record.

Over 8,700 wildfires, burned over 1,300,000 acres, cost over 13 billion dollars in damage, and

has killed 47 people.

“Spatial variability in the wildfire response to an earlier spring. Vulnerability of western

U.S. forests to more frequent wildfires due to warmer temperatures is a function of the spatial

distribution of forest area and the sensitivity of the local water balance to changes in the timing

of spring. We measured this sensitivity using the October-to-September moisture deficit—the

cumulative difference between the potential evapotranspiration due to temperature and the

actual evapotranspiration constrained by available moisture—which is an important indication

of drought stress in plants. We used the percentage difference in the moisture deficit for early

versus late snowmelt years scaled by the fraction of forest cover in each grid cell to map

forests’ vulnerability to changes in the timing of spring.” (2) Bowman

“The Northern Rockies and Northern California display the greatest vulnerability by this

measure—the same forests accounting for more than three-quarters of increased wildfire

frequency since the mid-1980s. Although the trend in temperature over the Northern Rockies

increases with elevation, vulnerability in the Northern Rockies is highest around 2130 meters,

where the greatest increase in fires has occurred. At lower elevations, the moisture deficit in

early years is increasing from a high average value (i.e., summer drought tends to be longer and

more intense at lower elevations), whereas at higher elevations the longer dry season in early

years is still relatively short, and vegetation is somewhat buffered from the effects of higher

temperatures by the available moisture.” (2) Bowman

Climate change and global warming are all very concerning events taking place in the

world today. Mankind has a huge effect on climate change, we are emitting mass amounts of

carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, trapping in

solar particles from the sun and heating the earth’s temperature. Some scientist believe that if
we act now we may be able to alter the warming affect, by decreasing the amount that we

drive, and the types of vehicles that we drive. Electric vehicles are becoming more popular,

easier to obtain, and being manufactured in greater numbers.

” Taken together, trends in fire variables indicate significant increases in fire activity

over much of the western U.S. Notable exceptions are the Snake Plain/Columbia Plateau,

Northern Plains, and Basin and Range ecoregions. While trends pointed toward increasing total

area and 90th percentile fire size, none of these ecoregions demonstrated significant changes in

the four fire variables (Figure 2). Remarkably, the increasing trends in fire activity span a wide

range of vegetation types, latitudes, and precipitation regimes found in the western U.S. Fire

regimes that dominate the nine examined ecoregions vary in prevalent fuel type, fire season,

fire frequency, and fire intensity but share large increases in fire activity over the study period.”

(3) Dennison

In conclusion wildfires are a very fascinating and powerful force. They have the power

to help create life or take it away. Human beings in the near future must become less reliant on

fossil fuels and admit less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If change and action are not

taken, we can expect more intense wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Work cited

(1) Westerling, A.L., (2006) www.sciencemag.org , Warming and Early Spring Increase

Western U.S. Forest Wildfires Activity. Vol 313

(2) Bowman, David (2009) www.sciencemag.org, Fire in the Earth System, Vol 324

(3) Dennision, Philip (2014) American Geophysical Union, Large Wildfire Trends in the

United States.