Research: Northern Plains fire season could extend by several months

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According to new research, wildfires could be on the rise in the coming years. That means the Northern Plains fire season could be extended by several months.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported 13,458 wildfires between January and March. That's the ninth largest amount of wildfires for that time period since 2000. These fires burned 2,166,002 acres, which is the most on record.

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.

“Where we see these fires is where we see the changing conditions that are attributable to global climate change,” Cochrane says.

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The researchers then modeled likely fire behavior between the year 2041 and 2070. The results predicted a 20-50 percent increase in the number of days when conditions would be right for fires. Cochrane says extreme droughts, strong winds, low humidity, and warming temperatures will all play a part in the increased fire potential.  

“Conditions are getting worse, and therefore, these types of fires are going to get more common," Cochrane explains.

Darren Clabo, the South Dakota state fire meteorologist, says the Northern Plains has seen a temperature increase of about .2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade over the past 100 years. That in turn has extended the fire season across the region.

"What we've been seeing across Western South Dakota, inclusive of the Black Hills, is we're actually warming faster in the winter time than we are in the summer time," Clabo says. "So those warmer conditions in the winter time going into early spring actually produce more favorable conditions for large wildland fire growth."

If the trend continues, South Dakota’s agricultural community could be greatly affected. We explore that aspect in part two of our wildfire report.

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