In a year that is already being called one of the worst ever for wildfires in the western United States, there is another fact that some may find remarkable: For nearly 40 years, the number of wildfires in California has been declining.
California wildfire data reviewed by a USGS research ecologist shows a trend that many may find hard to believe: Since a peak in 1980, there have been fewer and fewer wildfires in California. This is true across the entire state, according to researcher Jon Keeley, who is also a professor at UCLA.
According to his paper, co-authored with Alexandra D. Syphard, we need to rethink our ideas about the frequency of wildfires.
“The claim commonly made in research papers and the media that fire activity is increasing throughout the western USA is certainly an over-statement,” wrote the authors.
The trend of fewer, but not smaller fires is apparent in recent years. State data regarding large wildfires (300 acres or more) from 2000 to 2015 show total numbers – not fire size – has been in decline, despite a sharp spike in 2008.
So, what’s the reason for this decline? Well, they don’t know… yet.
“Can’t say at this point what has changed in the last 100 years that has caused this decline… but I am hoping we might find out,” Keeley said.
What might be behind a decline in wildfires?
Keeley has just begun to analyze the data and look for a reason, but he expects to finish that analysis by the end of September. He is also sending his research to Calfire for review.
Keeley is confident the culprits behind the decline can be narrowed down to two options – prevention or climate – but he is reserving his judgment for now.
“Maybe fire prevention strategies or could be related to climate,” Keeley said. “My guess is they would probably like to think it is increasing efficiency in fire prevention but remains to be seen if that is the answer at this point.”
Keeley is hoping Calfire might be able to point to some specific prevention strategies and dates they were implemented to help him suss out if they had a major impact in wildfire declines.
“We definitely have the education side,” Calfire spokesman Scott McLean said. “We spend a lot of money being proactive in trying to educate the…