Stanford University
Thomas Fire, 2017

Wildfires

A collection of research and insights for a changing planet

The science behind the West Coast fires

A collection of research and insights from Stanford experts on wildfires' links to climate change, the health impacts of smoke, and promising strategies for preventing huge blazes and mitigating risks.

BY Stanford Earth Staff
ClockSeptember 29, 2020

Wildfires have torched more than five million acres in California, Oregon and Washington. They’ve killed dozens of people, prompted evacuation orders for hundreds of thousands more and spewed enough toxin-laden smoke to make air conditions hazardous for millions. 

Tendrils of smoke have drifted as far as Europe. As environmental economist Marshall Burke put it in a virtual panel discussion hosted in September by Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, “This is not just a U.S. West Coast issue, this is a nationwide issue.”

As the fires burn, they are unlocking huge amounts of carbon dioxide from soils and plants and launching it into the atmosphere. 

Five of the six largest fires on the modern record in California ignited in 2020, and most of the largest fires in the state’s history have occurred in the past two decades. Scientists say global warming and decades of fire suppression have helped lay the groundwork for the devastating blazes. One study by Stanford researchers estimated as much as 20 million acres in California would benefit from vegetation thinning or prescribed burns. Another found that the risk of extreme wildfire conditions during autumn has more than doubled across California over the past four decades, and human-caused global warming has made the changes more likely.

This collection covers how scientists are unraveling the factors that contribute to wildfire risk, understanding their impacts and developing solutions. Scroll down for wildfire research news and insights related to climate change, health impacts, prevention and mitigation, prediction and modeling and more.

Last updated: October 7, 2020

Climate change

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Longer, more extreme fire seasons

A study led by Stanford scientists shows autumn days with extreme fire weather have more than doubled in California since the early 1980s due to climate change.

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What to expect from future wildfire seasons

The new normal for Western wildfires is abnormal, with increasingly bigger and more destructive blazes.

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Wildfire weather

Stanford climate and wildfire experts discuss extreme weather’s role in current and future wildfires, as well as ways to combat the trend toward bigger, more intense conflagrations.

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Media Mention | September 2020

Climate change has its ‘thumb on the scale’ of extreme fire

“Humans are ingenious at managing climate risk, but our systems are built around the historical climate,” climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh told The Washington Post“Systems that were built for the old climate are being stressed in a new way.”

(Image credit: Sheila Sund / Flickr)

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Media Mention | October 2020

Shifting biomes

“In a changing climate it’s not just about continuing to manage the risk of ignition. We also need to recognize that we are dealing with biome shifts that will occur through time," said Chris Field, director of Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment. Read more in the National Geographic article, "How much are beetles to blame for the 2020 fires?"

Fires ignited in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks following lightning strikes in August 2020. (Image credit: NPS)

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Wildfire smoke worse for kids' health than smoke from controlled burns

Immune markers and pollutant levels in the blood indicate wildfire smoke may be more harmful to children’s health than smoke from a controlled burn.

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California wildfires bring questions about health and climate

What does smoke inhalation do to my health? What’s the evidence that these are caused by climate change? Here is how some Stanford experts answer and continue to tackle these complex concerns.

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Wildfires' health impacts

California’s massive wildfires bring a host of health concerns for vulnerable populations, firefighters and others. Kari Nadeau and Mary Prunicki of Stanford’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research discuss related threats, preparedness and ongoing research.

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Media Mention | September 2020

An unexpectedly huge toll on America’s lungs

As wildfires become more frequent due to climate change, the increasing amounts of smoke may harm Americans nearly as much as rising temperatures, according to a working paper by Stanford environmental economist Marshall Burke and colleagues. “That’s crazy, right?” Burke told Bloomberg. “We hadn’t even thought of that as a key part of the climate impact in this country.”

Wildfire smoke created otherworldly orange skies over the Bay Area on September 9, 2020. (Image credit: Christopher Michel)

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Setting fires to avoid fires

Analysis by Stanford researchers suggests California needs fuel treatments – whether prescribed burns or vegetation thinning – on about 20 million acres or nearly 20 percent of the state’s land area.

 

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A new treatment to prevent wildfires

Scientists and engineers worked with state and local agencies to develop and test a long-lasting, environmentally benign fire-retarding material. If used on high-risk areas, the treatment could dramatically cut the number of fires that occur each year.

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Wildfire preparedness

Experts with Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment discuss strategies for managing wildfire risks, including incentive structures, regulations, partnerships and financing.

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Mitigating risks with law and environmental policy

"In talking about risks and policy prescriptions, we need to separate out wildfires at the wildland-urban interface – those that put people and communities at most risk – from fires that historically have burned through our remote forestlands," said Deborah Sivas, Director of Stanford’s Environmental Law Clinic. 

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Concrete steps California can take to prevent massive fire devastation

"Successful wildfire preparedness begins with a clear strategy and accountability for outcomes," writes Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.

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Los Angeles Times

Are forest managers robbing the future to pay for present-day fires?

"As fires burn with greater magnitude and frequency, the cost of fighting them is increasingly borne by money earmarked for prevention," writes Bill Lane Center for the American West writer in residence Felicity Barringer.

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Essay | September 2020
Area burned in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. (Image credit: Cal OES)

California burning

Heat waves that could melt the fat in uncooked meat until it would “run away in spontaneous gravy.” Forests that turned abruptly into “great sheets of flame.” These are some of the realities of life in California noted by the botanist William Brewer in 1860, and surfaced in an essay for The New Yorker by Stanford Classics professor Ian Morris about being evacuated from his home in the Santa Cruz mountains.

 

According to Morris, "Before Europeans came, Native Californians had found ways to cope with this reality. Many moved seasonally, partly to avoid forest fires. As much as one-sixth of the state was deliberately burned each year." Not many people lived in places like the Santa Cruz Mountains until the 1870s. Since then, Morris wrote, the "quiet migration of hundreds of thousands of nature lovers has created one of the most unnatural landscapes on Earth."

 

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Media Mention | September 2020

Preparing together

"We need programs that emphasize and support herd immunity from fires," Rebecca Miller, a PhD student in the Emmet Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, told Mic. Rebuilding efforts after a fire, she added, ought to recognize that once-burned neighborhoods are likely to burn again.

Fire burned the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Calif. in October 2017. (Image credit: Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Cosse / California National Guard)

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Mapping dry wildfire fuels with AI and new satellite data

Stanford researchers have developed a deep-learning model that maps fuel moisture levels in fine detail across 12 western states, opening a door for better fire predictions.

 

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Predicting wildfires with CAT scans

Engineers at Stanford have used X-ray CT scans, more common in hospital labs, to study how wood catches fire. They’ve now turned that knowledge into a computer simulation to predict where fires will strike and spread.

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Satellite imagery shows hot spots and thick smoke plumes from wildfires burning in Oregon and northern California on Sept. 8, 2020. (Video credit: NOAA)

Media Contacts

Josie Garthwaite

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

(650) 497-0947; josieg@stanford.edu

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