Incorporating anthropogenic influences into fire probability models: Effects of development and climate change on fire activity in California

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 8:30 AM
Michael Mann1, Max Moritz2, Enric Batllori2, Eric Waller3, Meg Krawchuk4 and Peter Berck3, (1)George Washington University, Washington, DC, United States, (2)University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, United States, (3)University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, United States, (4)Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada
The costly interactions between humans and natural fire regimes throughout California demonstrate the need to understand the uncertainties surrounding wildfire, especially in the face of a changing climate and expanding human communities. Although a number of statistical and process-based wildfire models exist for California, there is enormous uncertainty about the location and number of future fires. Models estimate an increase in fire occurrence between nine and fifty-three percent by the end of the century. Our goal is to assess the role of uncertainty in climate and anthropogenic influences on the state’s fire regime from 2000-2050. We develop an empirical model that integrates novel information about the distribution and characteristics of future plant communities without assuming a particular distribution, and improve on previous efforts by integrating dynamic estimates of population density at each forecast time step. Historically, we find that anthropogenic influences account for up to fifty percent of the total fire count, and that further housing development will incite or suppress additional fires according to their intensity. We also find that the total area burned is likely to increase but at a slower than historical rate. Previous findings of substantially increased numbers of fires may be tied to the assumption of static fuel loadings, and the use of proxy variables not relevant to plant community distributions. We also find considerable agreement between GFDL and PCM model A2 runs, with decreasing fire counts expected only in areas of coastal influence below San Francisco and above Los Angeles. Due to potential shifts in rainfall patterns, substantial uncertainty remains for the semiarid deserts of the inland south. The broad shifts of wildfire between California’s climatic regions forecast in this study point to dramatic shifts in the pressures plant and human communities will face by midcentury. The information provided by this study reduces the level of uncertainty surrounding the influence that natural and anthropogenic systems have on wildfire.