In conjunction with SCIPP PI Dr. Mark Shafer, graduate student Darrian Bertrand wrote a report on Changing Fire Regimes and Management Strategies. Her research was funded by the South Central Climate Science Center (SC-CSC) and supported by SCIPP.
Fire is a natural and necessary component of the South Central Plains ecosystem. However, fire suppression and more frequent droughts in the region have resulted in a build-up of dry fuels loads such as dead wood, resulting in fires that burn hotter and impact the landscape more severely. Uncontrolled wildfires have cost the region several billion dollars in the past five years. Further, fire suppression has resulted in substantial losses in native plant biodiversity and wildlife habitat, which also has costly implications. In Oklahoma alone, it’s estimated that $157 million will be required to restore rangelands to their native conditions. Of further concern is the fact that projected changes in climate indicate that the region will continue to experience hotter and drier conditions, meaning that fire risks will continue to increase unless proper management strategies, such as prescribed fire, are implemented.
In order to develop effective fire management responses, ongoing research into the changing scope and intensity of fire regimes in the region needs to be better connected to management practitioners and their expertise.This project will help managers respond to changing fire regimes by analyzing historical climate observations and future projections to identify days which are suitable for prescribed burns as well as days of high wildfire potential.
Prescribed burning is a management tool used to reduce fuel loads and lessen the risk of severe wildland fire across the South Central Plains, but little is known about the change in weather conditions suitable for these days over time. To conduct a prescribed burn, weather conditions must be in a certain safety range. For example, there must be enough wind to start a fire and allow the smoke plume to disperse, but excessively strong winds would allow the fire to grow out of control. A rising issue is climate change, for if prescribed burns are only safe within a distinct threshold, then changing climate conditions may alter this small window of opportunity. This project documents the seasonal and inter-annual variability of suitable burn conditions across the South Central Plains region of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Prescribed Burn Associations from the included states were contacted for minimum and maximum thresholds of temperature, wind speed, and relative humidity in order to obtain the appropriate values for data analysis. Hourly data for the time period of 1996-2015 were analyzed in order to produce a climatological analysis of burn conditions, and a glimpse into future conditions indicates a potential change in the frequency of these suitable burn conditions by the end of the century.