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Wildfires

Ilari Lehtonen, Ari Venäläinen, Andrea Vajda



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Introduction. Uncontrolled forest fires impact both natural and built-up environments as well as humans. The occurrence of a forest fire requires the same basic elements as any fire: heat, oxygen and fuel. Preceding and prevailing weather conditions are crucial for setting conditions susceptible to fire in a forest. Drought, high temperatures and pronounced evaporation dry off organic material in forests, i.e. the fuel. Strong wind during/after ignition substantially intensifies spreading of the fire and raises the likelihood of the surface fire transition to a crown fire (Rothermel 1991). A crown fire is a fire carried through the crowns of living trees. It typically leads to more severe impacts and is harder to extinguish than surface fire alone. The majority of fires are caused by human activities. For example, Ganteume et al. (2013) estimated that only about 7% of the fires (whose cause was known) in North Europe, 0.5% in Central Europe and 5% in South Europe were caused by natural sources. Similarly, a review by Bowman et al. (2009) showed that the variation in the occurrence of fires cannot be predicted by climate forcing alone, but that other aspects such including human behavior have to be taken into account, too. Weather and climate are not the only forcing mechanisms of forest fires, but they determine the conditions for fires to occur and spread, once an ignition occurs, and this way remain as the key factors for explaining the spatial and temporal variability of fires.
Climate change will indisputably increase forests’ fire sensitivity in areas where increases in summertime temperatures are accompanied by notable decreases in precipitation, such as in the Mediterranean area (Mouillot et al. 2002; Bedia et al. 2014). In more northern regions, estimates of the summertime precipitation amounts are inconclusive (Jylhä et al. 2009; Ylhäisi et al. 2010) making the effect of future climate on fire sensitivity not self-evident.
[...]

Climate predictions. [...] In the future, the risk for wildfires is mainly projected to increase. However, in the north, the multi-model mean change is small or even negative over many areas, although this decreasing risk was nowhere indicated by all the models. This is interesting, as in many studies the forest-fire risk in the boreal zone has been found to increase as a response to global warming (e.g. Flannigan et al., 2009; Sherstyukov and Sherstyukov, 2014). However, as Lehtonen et al. (2016) pointed out, the scatter among the future model projections for high forest-fire danger is large in Northern Europe. Hence, the multi-model mean, that consists only of models downscaled with three different regional climate models, may not be representative enough. Moreover, it is biased towards the SMHI-RCA4 model that was used for downscaling three of the six models used here. The increase in the meteorological fire risk is more evident in Southern and Central Europe, where models unanimously project an increase in daily probability of fire risk (FWI>20) by 2-5 pp and locally >5 pp by 2050 and predominantly by >5% by 2100 in most of Southern Europe. The change is more robust under the RCP 8.5 scenario. Similar changes are expected for the very high forest fire risk (FWI>45), although the degree of change is somehow lower. This increase is both due to increasing temperatures and to decreasing summer precipitation. [...]


In Present and future probability of meteorological and hydrological hazards in Europe (2016), pp. 112-118 
Key: INRMM:14527984

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