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Big Wildfires becoming more Frequent in the Western U.S.

April 18, 2014; 3:36 PM ET

New research from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) indicates that western U.S. wildfires in excess of 1,000 acres in size have been increasing by a rate of seven fires a year from 1984 to 2011.

This is the first study to use high resolution satellite data to examine wildfire trends over a broad range of landscapes, according to the AGU report.

The total area these fires burned increased at a rate of nearly 90,000 acres a year - an area the size of Las Vegas, according to the study. Individually, the largest wildfires grew at a rate of 350 acres a year, the new research says. (from the AGU)

The research team utilized satellite data to measure burn areas since 1984 and then compared that data to climate variables such as seasonal temperatures and rainfall. The results showed that areas which saw an increase in fire activity during the period also saw an increase in drought severity at the same time.

The study stops short of linking the rise in number and size of fires directly to human-caused climate change. However, it says the observed changes in fire activity are in line with long-term, global fire patterns that climate models have projected will occur as temperatures increase and droughts become more severe in the coming decades due to global warming. (from the AGU)

"Most of these trends show strong correlations with drought-related conditions which, to a large degree, agree with what we expect from climate change projections," said Max Moritz, a co-author of the study and a fire specialist at the University of California-Berkeley Cooperative Extension..

The invasion of non-native species and past fire management practices are also likely contributors to these changes in fire activity.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or AccuWeather.com

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