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Downslope Wind-Driven Fires in the Western United States

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Downslope wind-driven fires have resulted in many of the wildfire disasters in the western United States and represent a unique hazard to infrastructure and human life. We analyze the co-occurrence of wildfires and downslope winds across the western United States (US) during 1992–2020. Downslope wind-driven fires accounted for 13.4% of the wildfires and 11.9% of the burned area in the western US yet accounted for the majority of local burned area in portions of southern California, central Washington, and the front range of the Rockies. These fires were predominantly ignited by humans, occurred closer to population centers, and resulted in outsized impacts on human lives and infrastructure. Since 1999, downslope wind-driven fires have accounted for 60.1% of structures and 52.4% of human lives lost in wildfires in the western US. Downslope wind-driven fires occurred under anomalously dry fuels and exhibited a seasonality distinct from other fires—occurring primarily in the spring and fall. Over 1992–2020, we document a 25% increase in the annual number of downslope wind-driven fires and a 140% increase in their respective annual burned area, which partially reflects trends toward drier fuels. These results advance our understanding of the importance of downslope winds in driving disastrous wildfires that threaten populated regions adjacent to mountain ranges in the western US. The unique characteristics of downslope wind-driven fires require increased fire prevention and adaptation strategies to minimize losses and incorporation of changing human-ignitions, fuel availability and dryness, and downslope wind occurrence to elucidate future fire risk.

J.T. Abatzoglou; C.A. Kolden; A.P. Williams; M. Sadegh; J.K. Balch; A. Hall

Abatzoglou JT, Kolden CA, Williams AP, Sadegh M, Balch JK, Hall A. Downslope Wind-Driven Fires in the Western United States. Earth's Future. 2023 ;11(5).

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