The concerning projections are partially based on a compilation of global satellite data, which illustrate the intensity of 23 million landscape fires between 2002 and 2013.
Focusing on 478 of the most extreme wildfire events, the team found that about 30 percent centered in regions in which humans live – landscapes that face a greater risk of fire disasters.
“Of the top 478 events, we identified 144 economically and socially disastrous extreme fire events that were concentrated in regions where humans have built into flammable forested landscapes, such as areas surrounding cities in southern Australia and western North America,” lead author David Bowman said.
Bowman and his team used climate model projections to evaluate the likely consequences of climate change, which predicted more extreme fires in the near future for Australia’s east coast and the entire Mediterranean region, including Spain, France, Portugal, Greece and Turkey.
“The projections suggest an increase in the days conducive to extreme wildfire events by 20 to 50 percent in these disaster-prone landscapes, with sharper increases in the subtropical Southern Hemisphere, and the European Mediterranean Basin,” Bowman said.
The United Stated faces the highest proportion of fire events that become disasters of the nations analyzed, according to co-author Crystal Kolden.
“What is really novel about this study is that in the U.S., we tend to make the assumption that all large and intense fires are disasters, and that there is nothing we can do about it,” Kolden said. “But that is not the case at all. What makes a fire event a disaster in the U.S. is when key factors combine – low-density housing amidst dense forests, the right climatic conditions, and a lack of fire preparedness on the part of humans.”
Kolden added that potentially affected areas of the United States still have options for preventing these fire events from becoming disasters.
“We can’t stop big, intense fires from happening here, and they are increasing under climate change,” she said. “However, in the western U.S., we can reduce the potential for fire disasters by both reducing forest density and improving mitigation and preparedness through the development of fire-resilient communities.”
The team’s findings were published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution – the same day Bowman’s home state of Tasmania, Australia, remembered the impact of the 1967 “Black Tuesday” bushfires, which claimed the lives of 62 people and left more than 7,000 homeless.