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Conditions for wildfires – heat, dryness and wind – are intensifying with climate change

Graphic courtesy of Climate Central The changes in the number of hot, dry, windy days – in other words, days marked by fire weather – since 1973 across the U.S.

By Jim Bloch

If rising oceans or stronger hurricanes don’t wash us away, if the more than 850 tornadoes that have raked the U.S. in 2024 don’t blow us to Oz, maybe we’ll be cooked by wildfires.

A new study by Climate Central has found that fire weather seasons have gotten longer and more intense in the U.S. over the past 51 years, especially in the West.

Climate Central, a nonprofit that researches the impacts of climate change and communicates them to the public and to decision-makers, released the study May 15.

“To investigate trends in fire weather, a key factor of wildfire risk, Climate Central analyzed data from 476 weather stations to assess trends in 245 climate divisions spanning the 48 contiguous U.S. states during the last 51 years (1973-2023),” the report said. The organization looked at high heat, low humidity and strong winds.

The southwestern U.S. was by far the most combustible. In southeast Arizona, there were 57 more fire weather days in 2023 than in 1973. Transpico, Texas and the Northwestern Plateau of New Mexico had 59 more fire weather days. 

“Warming temperatures and increasingly dry air, vegetation, and soils make fires easier to spread, and more difficult to fight or prevent,” the report said.

The Southeastern Desert Basin of California and the Northern Mountains of New Mexico each had 61 more fire weather days.

“Many parts of the East have seen smaller but impactful increases in fire weather days,” the report said.

Michigan, on the other hand, fared relatively well, living up to its reputation as a haven for climate refugees. Northeast Lower Michigan, which includes Alpena, had five more fire weather days than in 1973. A fire in Crawford Township last June burned 2,400 acres. But most areas had only one more fire weather day – South Central Lower Michigan, East Central, Southwestern Lower, West Central Lower, Northwest Lower and the Western Upper Peninsula. The Eastern Upper Peninsula was unchanged from 1973. Southeast Lower Michigan, which includes Port Huron and Detroit, had two more fire weather days.

“Some places, including parts of California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas now experience fire weather around twice as often as in the early 1970s,” said the report. “By contrast, parts of North Dakota and South Dakota have experienced a decline in the frequency of fire weather days. The Dakotas are part of a region where spring has been cooling slightly.” 

Canada

Last summer, smoke from uncontrolled Canadian wildland fires obscured sunsets in the U.S., blanketed cities such as New York and Detroit and triggered hundreds of air quality alerts. By September 5, 2023, 6,132 wildland fires had burnt 16.5 million hectares across Canada or nearly 41 million acres.

“Canada’s 2023 wildfire season was the most destructive ever recorded,” according to Natural Resources Canada. “To put that in perspective, that’s an area larger than Greece and more than double the 1989 record. Normally, an average of 2.5 million hectares of land is consumed in Canada every year.” That’s about 6.2 million acres.

By the middle of July, there were 29 mega-fires in the country, each larger than 100,000 hectares. They spanned the country’s entire breadth. Some of the fires were so hot that they generated their own weather, including hurricane-force winds and fire lightning, which often sparked new fires.

“There’s no question (that) extreme weather, record high temperatures and dry conditions caused by climate change intensified (2023’s) wildfire crisis,” said Jonathan Boucher, a Canadian Forest Services’ scientist, in a statement.

In Quebec, climate change more than doubled the chance of extreme fire weather conditions – heat, dry fuel such as fallen trees and underbrush, and wind.

As of May 24, 2024 there were 14 uncontrolled fires in Canada, 14 considered “being held” and 68 “controlled.” There had been 1,208 wildland fires, just under the 10-year average of 1,212. The number of acres burned was nearly a million, 138 percent above average, according to Natural Resources Canada.

Jim Bloch is a freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. Contact him at bloch.jim@gmail.com.

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