Environmental Science Division (EVS)a Division of Argonne National Laboratory
Predictive environmental understanding

EVS researchers examine wildfire trends to help governments develop plans to mitigate wildfire devastation

November 23, 2020

The wildfires that have burned throughout the West for the better part of the summer and fall have devastated record-breaking tracts of land, destroying homes and wildlife habitat in their wake. The number and severity of these fires represent an increase over the past two to three decades and researchers believe that the trend will continue.

Combining data from well-established fire indices and historical climate records, Argonne researchers are mapping out a forecast for wildfire events across the contiguous United States and Alaska that spans the rest of the century. They also are applying that forecast to predict how wildfires might affect essential infrastructure, particularly the nation's electric grid.

Working with Mark Petri, director of Argonne's electric power grid program, EVS researchers Yan Feng and Jiali Wang examined wildfire trends over the past 30 years. Using the well-known Keetch-Byram drought index (KBDI) and exceptionally high-resolution climate observations from sites across the country, they illustrated how those trends could affect future events.

Their modeling outputs project more numerous, more frequent and more extreme fire events, especially in the West, where there are already many fires. The same will hold true for the South and Southeast, already prone to damage from hurricanes and other extreme hazards. They also found that the potential for extreme fires could extend to parts of the country where wildfires presented little risk in the past, like the Midwest, the Northeast and Alaska.

Predicted changes in the number of days and area with extremely high drought index, from historical period to late 21st century. Shading indicates changes in the number of days; significant changes are hashed. Dots indicate that a grid cell has a high index value in the future.
Predicted changes in the number of days and area with extremely high drought index, from historical period to late 21st century. Shading indicates changes in the number of days; significant changes are hashed. Dots indicate that a grid cell has a high index value in the future. [Source: Emily Brown, Jiali Wang and Yan Feng, Argonne National Laboratory]

Understanding the location, frequency and severity of future wildfires could help infrastructure operators, land management agencies and local governments develop plans to mitigate the devastation wrought by future wildfires.

Read the full article by John Spizzirri.

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portrait of Yan Feng
portrait of V. Rao Kotamarthi
portrait of Jiali Wang