‘This won’t be over soon’: WA researchers analyze severe fire seasons

SPOKANE, Wash. — This summer, wildfires have devastated entire communities, including in Washington. The small town of Malden lost nearly every home to a wildfire earlier this month.

Washington State University professor Matt Carroll has spent his career studying the relationship between communities and forests.

“What is fairly clear is that our fire seasons have grown longer, so the greater time period in which these fires can burn and that, of course, has impacts,” Carroll said.

Carroll cited a complex network of factors that impact the severity of fire season each year. He said climate change, forest management, and where people live are all major players in the discussion. He said through his research, he’s seen more people move into wooded areas. Many of those people know little to nothing about fire management or protection.

“We’ve gone long beyond the idea that somehow Smokey Bear and the Forest Service is going to put out all the fires and protect communities,” Carroll said. “We now recognize that communities need to take proactive action at the community level in order to reduce the risk.”

The challenge there is that there is no approach that fits everyone, according to Carroll. He explained that there is a wide spectrum where each community has its own resources, conditions, and knowledge. What works for a rural Washington town may not be the best fit for a more developed area of California.

“It’s not a problem we are going to solve in one day,” Carroll said. “It’s a problem that has to be approached incrementally.”

Climate change is a big piece of the puzzle, according to Carroll, and Paul Hessburg. Hessburg is a Wenatchee-based senior research landscape ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. His research has focused, in part, on anticipated climate change effects on the landscape and needs for adaptations. Data is painting a grim picture when it comes to fire seasons of the future.

“Climate predictions are telling us the area burned in the Western U.S. since 2000 is going to double or triple by mid-century. That’s just 30 years from now,” Hessburg said. “People need to get better prepared.”

There are local, state and federal programs to help individuals and communities prepare for fires and mitigate possible damage in the future. Those programs can help make a difference, but it’s up to communities to take the imitative, according to some researchers.

“The data are clearly showing that wildfire and climate interactions are changing really fast,” Hessburg said. “Severe fires are going to be in our futures for a long time, so it’s going to be very important to get prepared and stay prepared. This won’t be over soon.”

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