UW News

August 13, 2018

UW forest biologist on wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, California

UW News


As wildfires burn across the western U.S., forest biologist and University of Washington professor David Peterson explains which natural materials burn hotter and faster during a wildfire, what homeowners can do to protect their properties and how climate change is impacting the fire season.

Researchers expect two to three times more area burned each year in the western U.S. than has occurred historically in the region. That’s 15 or 20 million acres burning each year across the West.

Additionally, climate change likely will have an “enormous” impact on wildfire in the coming century, Peterson said. First, as the temperature gets warmer, the western regions will experience a longer fire season. Second, warmer temperatures will produce more extreme weather. That means higher temperature periods and more drought periods — both critical times during which large wildfires occur.

“As more and more people move into the wildland-urban interface, we have more opportunities for homes to burn and more opportunities for economic damage,” Peterson said. “Even in fairly remote areas now, it’s hard to find an area, outside of wilderness, where at least somebody doesn’t live or have a structure. So that’s a real challenge.”

Peterson said that about 95 percent of the area that’s burned each year in the western U.S. is caused by 2 percent of the fires. That means the fires that occur during very extreme weather with high fuels and long periods of very dry, windy weather are the ones that cause most of the effects in forest ecosystems and other ecosystems.

“Once a fire becomes very large, and the energy release is extremely high, those fires become extremely difficult to put out,” he said.

Peterson worked for years at the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, providing information and developing tools to help fire managers across the country.


For more information, contact Peterson at wild@uw.edu or 360-422-5735. See a full list of UW-affiliated wildfire and forest ecology experts.