University of Montana Associate Professor of Fire Ecology Phillip Higuera has released a new study linking the effects of long term climate change on this past summer’s devastating fire season along the west coast.

Higuera said the pattern has been building for nearly half a century.

“This year fits in with a pattern that we've seen over the last really 40 years of increasingly warm dry conditions in the summer,” said Professor Higuera. “This year fits that mold very well where we had record setting warm, dry conditions across much of the regions of the West Coast that experienced exceptional burning this year.”

Higuera said there are other dynamics involved in the destruction of so many lives and homes in the past few summers.

“What's putting fire on our radar more is also the fact that these fires are burning into human communities and having really devastating human impacts,” he said. “So they are not only destroying homes and structures and taking human lives, but this year is a great example of smoke impacts from wildfires impacting millions of people up and down the West Coast.”

He said more and more people are moving into areas that are considered to be wildland urban interface.

“Coincident with climate conditions that are becoming more conducive to widespread burning, over the same time period, we're also seeing more and more development in flammable landscapes and basically putting humans in the way of fires more often,” he said.”

Higuera provided the first steps in the attempt to solve the year after year problem of wildfires in the heavily-populated west.

“We need to build in ways that recognize these risks from wildfire, and that need to recognize the increasing risk that we're being exposed to,” he said. “So even in areas where maybe in the past several decades, where we haven't seen a lot of fire activity, as the climate becomes warmer and drier, even areas that we haven't considered in the past as being vulnerable to this hazard are increasingly becoming vulnerable to this hazard. So we need to plan and build with that in mind.”

The piece was published in the journal Global Change Biology on Oct. 13.