Blues fire danger.jpg

A new study indicates climate changes will intensify wildfires in Oregon’s southern Blue Mountains, making them more frequent, more extensive and more severe. This August 2018 photo shows smoke from a wildfire billowing out of the Walla Walla River Valley in the foothills of the Blue Mountains east of Milton-Freewater.

PORTLAND — A new study indicates climate changes will intensify wildfires in Oregon’s southern Blue Mountains, making them more frequent, more extensive and more severe.

Brooke Cassell, a forest ecologist who now lives in Everett, Washington, led a team of researchers from Portland State University, North Carolina State University, the University of New Mexico and the U.S. Forest Service.

“Rising temperatures, longer fire seasons, increased drought, as well as fire suppression and changes in land use, have led to greater and more severe wildfire activity,” said the report published on Nov. 21. in Ecosphere, the Journal of the Ecological Society of America.

“Over the next century,” Cassell wrote, “the combined effects of climate change and wildfires are likely to shift the composition of mixed-conifer forests toward more climate- and fire-resilient species, such as ponderosa pine.”

“If these forests become increasingly dominated by only a few conifer species, the landscape may become less resilient to disturbances, such as wildfire, insects and diseases, and would provide less variety of habitat for plants and animals,” wrote Cassell, the study’s lead author and a recent Ph.D. graduate from Portland State’s Earth, Environment and Society program.

The researchers looked at how climate-driven changes in forest dynamics and wildfire activity will affect the landscape through 2100.

The team used a computer model to simulate and predict how the forests and fire potential will change over time in response to current management practices and two projected climate scenarios.

The results show climate warming in the western United States is causing changes to the wildfire regime in mixed conifer forests.

“Even if the climate stopped warming now, high-elevation species such as white bark pine, Engelmann spruce and sub-alpine fir will be largely replaced by more climate- and fire-resilient species like ponderosa pine and Douglas fir by the end of the century,” said the report.

A growth of the shade-loving grand fir that has been expanding in the understory of the forest also is expected to increase, even under hotter and drier future climate conditions, providing more fuels to help spread wildfires and make fires even more severe.

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