Denver, CO

Scientists develop a method to predict acres burned in upcoming wildfires

Claire Cleveland

By Claire Cleveland / NewsBreak

(Denver, Colo.) Last year, Colorado experienced one of the most devastating and costly wildfire seasons ever recorded. Scientists have been working to better understand wildfires.

A new predictive modeling system from scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, uses machine learning to study the historical relationship between climate and fire across the West. The model can then predict future trends.

The model indicates this year’s wildfire season is likely to be more severe than average, but not quite as severe as last year. The scientists predicted fires this summer will burn between 1.9 and 5.3-million acres in the West. Likely, 3.8 million acres total will burn. That’s around 5 million acres short of the 8.7 million acres burned across the region in 2020, but would still be the 8th largest burned area since 1984.

Widespread wildfires are part of a long-term trend linked to a changing climate. NCAR scientists set out to determine if climate conditions early in the year can offer clues to the extent of the blazes during the summer, when fire season peaks.

“We've seen an increasing trend in fire activity over the recent four decades in the Western United States,” said Ronnie Abolafia-Rosenzweig, the lead author of the study and NCAR scientist. “The preceding winter and spring climate really set the stage for summer fire activity in the Western United States.”

The prediction is currently for research purposes only, but if the method is tested and improved, it could help prevent or better manage wildfires in the future. Current seasonal forecasts can tell if a wildfire season will be comparatively mild or destructive, but fail to predict the number of acres likely to burn.

“I was expecting that winter and spring climate would have a significant relationship with summer fire activity, but the strength of that relationship was surprising to me,” said Abolafia-Rosenzweig. “The fact that we're able to explain most of the variability and trend of summer fire activity with only the pre-summer climate was a little surprising for me.”

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Claire Cleveland is a Denver-based freelance writer with a background in health and science reporting. She's covered the pandemic extensively and local news in Colorado. Previously, Claire was a reporter and producer for Colorado Public Radio.

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