Image Credit: John Crux/Shutterstock.com
Wildfires are increasing in frequency and intensity, with climate change shouldering much of the blame. While lightning strikes and human activity are responsible for starting wildfires, climate change has created the perfect conditions that allow them to ignite much more easily.
Exactly where and when a wildfire will start is impossible to pinpoint with absolute precision, but advanced weather forecasting technology can highlight potential fire hotspots and give authorities a head-start in protecting people, animals, and the local environment.
In the US state of California, the wildfire season was traditionally July to October, but wildfires are now a threat all year round. The state experienced four times the number of blazes in the first two months of 2021 than it had in the whole of the previous year. Warmer winter weather, strong winds and bountiful dry vegetation provided optimal conditions to aid fire ignition and spread - with devastating consequences.
California has been a victim of climate change with rainfall declining by 30% and increased temperatures of 1.8 °F since 1980. Image Credit: David A Litman/Shutterstock.com
Stanford University researchers found that climate change has doubled the riskiest fire days in California. Temperatures have risen by 1.8 °F since 1980, while rainfall has declined by 30%, doubling the number of autumn days with extreme conditions for igniting wildfires. This is a significant rise over a relatively short space of time and will only increase if climate change remains unaddressed.
Wildfires ravaged more than 50 million hectares of land in Australia in 2019. Researchers from Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute firmly pointed the finger at global warming, arguing that the record warm temperatures and dryness caused the severe wildfires, before concluding that widespread burning was at least 30% more likely than in a world without global warming, i.e., before 1900.
How Wildfires Start
Over 80% of wildfires in America are started by people accidentally, but fires also ignite spontaneously if conditions are favorable, or during electrical storms. A wildfire needs fuel, oxygen, and heat to ignite and be sustained, and weather can influence all of these.
Building materials and dried vegetation act as kindling, igniting faster, and burning better in temperate, drier conditions. Winds carry oxygen and drive flames toward other fuel sources; higher winds carry fires faster and further, often starting new blazes downwind, meaning fires spread over long distances without being directly connected.
Timing is also an important factor. Wildfire ignition favors high temperatures, quicker and variable winds, and little moisture in the air – and these are all found in the early afternoon, which is when most blazes start.
Wildfires 101 | National Geographic
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Predicting Fires with Weather Forecasting Solutions
Fire weather is complex, and previous efforts at forecasting risk have been simplistic and inaccurate, but the increasing number of wildfires worldwide is driving the need for more precise forecasting of potential fire hotspots.
Researchers working in the field are improving models predicting wildfire behavior by studying controlled fires to understand how they travel, while meteorologists are using the latest technology to identify potential fire hotspots, continuously creating and updating maps based on forecasted weather conditions that are critical to fire conditions.
“For preventative measures, fire weather forecasting uses atmospheric conditions to evaluate wildfire risk,” explains Renny Vandewege, Vice President of Weather Operations at DTN. “Air temperature, humidity, wind levels and even timing are factors in the intensity, spread and behavior of fires.”
“Fire weather conditions usually peak during the early afternoon when temperatures are typically their highest, wind speed will be at its maximum and most variable; and the relative humidity is generally at its lowest,” he adds. “Rapid fire growth potential in the late morning is especially dangerous and fire crews rely on accurate forecasts to manage response efforts.”
DTN has developed a live Geographic Information System (GIS) to enable users to forecast, analyze in real-time and map past, present, and future weather, and identify locations of fires, or potential blaze sites.
Sophisticated imaging systems can show fire locations in real time, allowing for a live look at the conditions using a GIS layer service containing the latest fire hotspot data and also showing the likelihood of a fire."
Renny Vandewege, Vice President, Weather Operations, DTN
Wildfires threaten public safety, houses, and infrastructure. The repercussions of these blazes can be devastating for people and wildlife. Weather is a powerful and variable natural phenomenon, but meteorological science and high-tech weather forecasting technology could help better predict where and when a wildfire might start.
Its role should not be underestimated. Using this technology will allow authorities to pinpoint fire hotspots and identify blazes. It removes the element of surprise and gives them the opportunity to be prepared and reactive, to manage the fires in a safe and coordinated way. It could be the difference between saving lives and homes, or not.
References and Further Reading
DTN (2021) Increasing Fire Risks Threaten Utilities, DTN, https://www.dtn.com/increasing-fires-risks-threaten-utilities-new-technology-is-critical-for-predicting-locating-wildfires/. Accessed 22 March 2021.
DTN, Geographic Information Systems, DTN, https://www.dtn.com/weather/utilities/gis/. Accessed 22 March 2021.
Foerster, J. (2020),The Science Of Fire Weather And Using It To Predict Wildfires, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimfoerster/2020/09/16/wildfires-and-hurricanes-take-your-pick-of-extreme-weather/?sh=6fdbaedc2aaa. Accessed 22 March 2021.
Mulkern, AC. (2020) Climate Change Has Doubled Riskiest Fire Days in California, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-change-has-doubled-riskiest-fire-days-in-california/. Accessed 22 March 2021.
Fountain, H. (2020) Climate Change Affected Australia’s Wildfires, Scientists Confirm, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/climate/australia-wildfires-climate-change.html. Accessed 22 March 2021.
Baraniuk, C. (2018) The quest to predict – and stop – the spread of wildfires, BBC Future, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180924-the-quest-to-predict-and-stop-the-spread-of-wildfires. Accessed 22 March 2021.
USDA Forest Service - Northern Research Station (2018) Fire weather prediction improving, ScienceDaily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180912132702.htm. Accessed 22 March 2021.