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Massive California fires consistent with climate change

But when rains return for a period of years, the burned vegetation may inevitably re-grow to very dense levels.

In the future, catastrophic fires such as those going on now in California may simply be a normal part of the landscape, said Neilson.

Fire forecast models developed by Neilsons research group at OSU and the Forest Service rely on several global climate models. When combined, they accurately predicted both the Southern California fires that are happening and the drought that has recently hit parts of the Southeast, including Georgia and Florida, causing crippling water shortages.

In studies released five years ago, Neilson and other OSU researchers predicted that the American West could become both warmer and wetter in the coming century, conditions that would lead to repeated, catastrophic fires larger than any in recent history.

At that time, the scientists suggested that periodic increases in precipitation, in combination with higher temperatures and rising carbon dioxide levels, would spur vegetation growth and add even further to existing fuel loads caused by decades of fire suppression.

Droughts or heat waves, the researchers said in 2002, would then lead to levels of wildfire larger than most observed since European settlement. The projections were based on various general circulation models that showed both global warming and precipitation increases during the 21st century.


Contact: Ronald Neilson
Oregon State University

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