Why Have There Been So Many Wildfires This Fall? | WABE 90.1 FM

Why Have There Been So Many Wildfires This Fall?

Nov 18, 2016

Around the Southeast, wildfires have burned more than 150 square miles. A third of that is right here in Georgia. Smoke has covered Atlanta on and off for days.

Georgia officials and people who live in the areas affected say they’ve never seen anything like it.

But this may not be so unprecedented.

“It really depends on how far back you look,” said Leda Kobziar, who teaches at the University of Idaho and is the President of the Association for Fire Ecology. “Whether it's outside of the norm ecologically, I would say probably not.”

By studying tree rings, she said, scientists know there used to be widespread fires in the southern Appalachians every six to 12 years.

That was before the Smokey Bear era of fire suppression. Now, it’s a different story.

“They're quite unusual,” said Jim Voce, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “I don’t know of a precedence for this level of wildfire activity at least in the last 100 years or so.”

There are a few reasons why this is happening, he explained.

There's the drought. And not just any drought, but a drought that has included weeks and weeks on end without any rain at all in some areas. So the forests are super-dry.

Then, there's the time of year – fall – with all its crispy dead leaves.

“So there's a constant supply of fuel,” said Voce. “Dry, highly flammable fuels.”

And finally, in some cases, people are starting them.

Voce said there's a lot to learn from these fires: impacts on plants and water quality; and how the fires behave in areas that have had controlled burns recently, versus those that haven’t.

“We haven't really had opportunities to study fire effects at this large scale,” he said.

The fires could also help us get a hint of what the future could hold, said Kobziar, since climate change could lead to more extreme weather or droughts in the region.

“I think it will give us the capacity to make better predictions for the future, and also enable us to understand these ecosystems better,” she said.  

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