Researchers Find Hot And Dry Wildfires On The Rise

Dec 21, 2020

Fox Park Hwy 230 during the Mullen Fire. A new technique categorizes wildfires by their starting conditions. It finds that fires in hot and dry areas are on the rise.
Credit Greg Sanders

Scientists have found that wildfires in hot and dry conditions are becoming more frequent.

Xiaodong Chen, a researcher at Pacific Northwest National Lab, uses climate models to simulate what the weather conditions in a certain region are like. He then takes a list of real fires and checks what the weather was like right before they started.

"For this study, we specifically focused on the antecedent conditions of all of these wildfires, or like what the environment looks like before a wildfire occurs," Chen said. "Through our study, we found that before the wildfire occurs, our surface [temperature] tends to be warmer and soil tends to be drier, and also we often have strong radiation."

He said fires in dry and warm conditions like Wyoming are happening a lot more and should be a cause for concern. Other types of wildfires, like those in wet soil, are actually becoming less frequent.

Chen's goal is to extend this project to model future wildfire events.

"We're going to investigate future behavior, so we'll do some new climate simulations to try to reproduce [big wildfire] events under some future climate," he said. "[Then] we can see what this event is going to look like, should it happen in the future."

Chen said that could help predict how and where fires will occur.

Have a question about this story? Please contact the reporter, Ashley Piccone, at apiccone@uwyo.edu.