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Issues Of The Environment: Wildfire Risk Increasing In Michigan Due To Climate Change

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The recent wildfires in California captured the world's attention, including those researching climate change.  In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair talks to one such researcher. Dr. Jonathon Overpeck is the Samuel A. Graham Dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. They discuss the connection between wildfires and climate change and why there is increased risk in Michigan. 


  • Although much attention has been given to the massive wildfires in the Western United States, Southeast Michigan is not immune from the possibility of dangerous and destructive wildfires.  According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), firefighters respond to 10,000 - 12,000 wildfires every year in our state.  Climate researchers expect that number to increase, and the fires to become more destructive and harder to contain.

  • According toDr. Jonathon Overpeck, an interdisciplinary climate scientist and the Samuel A. Graham Dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, warmer temperatures and drier conditions are major contributors to the wildfires out West, and the western fires are likely a sign of thing to come across the country.  He says, “As the climate continues to warm, elevated risks of forest stress and die-off, vegetation transformation and wildfire will spread across the United States.  Moreover, the problem is global.”

  • The cause of the problem of destructive wildfires is twofold.  Dr. Overpeck says, “Climate change is driving a rapid increase in wildfire risk that has become a national problem.  At the same time, healthy forests have become essential for the many valuable benefits they provide the nation and its people. Neither more effective forest management, nor curbing climate change alone will solve the growing wildfire problem, but together they can.”

  • Michigan is expected to see more changes in temperature extremes and precipitation patterns due to climate change.  Hot, drought-like conditions encourage the potential for wildfires.  Wet periods speed the growth of low vegetation.  Together, these conditions prime the land for fire.  In addition, the expectation is that plant life will become more stressed as plants that have evolved to thrive under historic climatic conditions try to adapt to new weather patterns.  This leads to more fuel for fires.

  • The MDHHS reports that 47% of Michigan’s wildfires begin with the burning of yard debris or garbage.  As Michigan becomes more fire prone, it is imperative that residents understand the risk and take precautions to prevent sparking a fire.  Most wildfires happen in spring in this state, when dry winds and abundant dead vegetation is exposed after the snow melts.  Clearcutting undergrowth in forested areas and using “prescriptive burning” can help to lessen the fuel that feeds fires, but the onus is really on citizens to be vigilant in prevention.  Michigan residents need to develop a person escape plan in the event of a wildfire, particularly those who live rural areas, where fires may be harder to reach and manpower may be minimal.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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