Study: Catastrophic wildfires to increase in Northern Plains

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A recent study predicts a substantial increase in wildfires across the Northern Plains.


If conditions continue to worsen, South Dakota will see damage to the environment and society, especially the agricultural community.

Mark Cochrane, a senior scientist at the Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence at South Dakota State University, has been working with researchers from the University of Tasmania and the University of Idaho. They examined roughly 23,000 fires worldwide from 2002 to 2013.

Out of those 23,000 fires, there have been 478 extreme fire events. Going further into the numbers, 144 of those fires are categorized as catastrophic. That means the fires caused damage to human life or property.

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One of the areas that experienced the greatest number of catastrophic fire events was the western portion of the United States. Pine trees can burn very intensely, and those are the dominant form of plant type in the west. Along with dry air and an increasing population, Cochrane says catastrophic fire events could be on the rise in the coming years.  

South Dakota Fire Meteorologist Darren Clabo says if wildfires become more widespread, it would have an impact on the ranching community.  

“The October ’16 fire that we had just east of Wall – the Cottonwood Fire – burned over 40,000 acres,” Clabo says. “And that was some very good ranch land – burned up a lot of fence line, things like that. So, I think the impacts are going to be really driven to a lot of our local community members here.”

These predictions are based on 23 climate models, forecasted for the years 2041-2070.  So only time will tell if extreme wildfire events become more common and what sort of effects that could have on people in their path. 

Read more on climate change statistics for the Northern Plains

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