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Anthropogenic forcings and associated changes in fire risk in Western North America and Australia during 2015-2016

Simon Tett, Alexander Falk, Megan Rogers, Fiona Spuler, Calum Turner, Joshua Wainwright, Oscar Dimdore-Miles, Sam Knight, Nicolas Freychet, Michael Mineter, Caroline Lehmann

edited by: Stephanie C. Herring, Nikolaos Christidis, Andrew Hoell, James P. Kossin, Carl J. Schreck, Peter A. Stott

Extreme vapor pressure deficits (VPD) have been associated with enhanced wildfire risk. Using one model, we found for 2015/16 that human influences quintupled the risk of extreme VPD for western North America and increased the risk for extratropical Australia.

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Introduction. In 2016, about 3.6 million hectares of land burned in the United States and Canada (NIFC 2017; NFD 2017). In Canada, a wildfire southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta, caused the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta’s history and destroyed 2400 homes in 2016 (McConnell 2016). Abatzoglou and Williams (2016; AP16 from hereon) showed that anthropogenic climate change has increased forest fire activity in the western United States. This raises the question if anthropogenic forcing are increasing the risk of devastating events outside this region such as the Canadian Fort McMurray fire.
During the Australian summer of 2015/16, the country experienced high numbers of bushfires: the southwest and southeast of the country were most affected with more than 100 000 hectares of vegetation burned in Tasmania (ABC News 2016a). Over the course of this summer, 408 residential and 500 nonresidential buildings were destroyed nationwide. This fire season was moderately destructive with insured losses of about AUD $350 million (ABC News 2016b).
AP16 found for the western United States a strong link between the spring–summer vapor pressure deficit (VPD) and the annual burned area. In this paper, we build on this work using monthly average VPD as a proxy for fire risk during the summer of 2016 for extratropical Australia (October–February) and western North America (May–August) though this link has not been directly established for either region. VPD is an absolute measure of the state of atmospheric moisture, specifically the difference between the saturation vapor pressure and the actual vapor pressure of the atmosphere (Seagar et al. 2015). Changes in VPD are associated with the drying of both live vegetation and litter fuels, and it is only when vegetation and litter fuels are sufficiently dry that fires can both ignite and spread (Bradstock 2010).

Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society In Explaining Extreme Events of 2016 from a Climate Perspective, Vol. 99, No. 1. (January 2018), pp. S60-S64, 
Key: INRMM:14503360



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