news and events » news

News Header

News Item

return to News

Maps show grim wildfire projections in Idaho’s near future; still time to act

by Nicole Blanchard, Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho) |

A new look at a former University of Idaho professor’s wildfire forecasts shows alarming predictions for the future frequency of large fires in Idaho counties. It’s part of a climate activist’s efforts to spur action on climate change by illustrating its effects on a local level.

“This Place Will Burn” is a project by climate activist Jon Leland to show residents of Western communities how climate change will affect them at home as large, devastating fires are expected to occur more frequently. Leland averaged multiple wildfire forecast models created by former University of Idaho climatology professor John Abatzoglou in 2015 to create the most likely prediction for fire frequency in the next 20 to 40 years. Abatzoglou, who now teaches at University of California-Merced, originally used visualizations that showed the fire incidence on a gridded map, but Leland reorganized the data by county.

“Originally, it was just a grid overlay,” Leland explained in a phone interview. “So you can try to figure out which giant square you live in but that’s hard to do, and it doesn’t map onto any concept we have of home or community.”

Leland’s map shows what Idahoans can expect to see at home within their lifetimes — and the projections are fairly grim, particularly in Southwest Idaho. The map displays a color-coded county-by-county history of “large fires” (12,000 acres or more, Abatzoglou said in a phone interview) between 1971 and 2000. Users can toggle between that data and projections for 2040 through 2069.

In the historical map, Ada County experienced large fires every 10 to 20 years, with a 9% chance each year of a major wildfire. In 20 years, projections show Ada County will have a major fire every two to five years, with a 32% annual chance of a large fire. Canyon County will increase slightly from a 2% yearly risk of a major wildfire to 7%. Neighboring Elmore and Owyhee counties, which were already the state’s worst-affected counties with a history of large fires every two to five years, will also worsen. Owyhee will likely have multiple major wildfires each year, while Elmore will see a large wildfire each year or every other year.

“This isn’t some far-off thing,” Leland said. “The risks of these giant wildfires are really terrifying. They’re the ones that kill people and destroy things. It’s a very scary reality that we’re going to be facing.”

Though Abatzoglou’s models were created in 2015, he said they’re still just as accurate. His original research resulted in multiple future scenarios for wildfires, taking into account differing factors like short-term drought, strong winds and high temperatures in what Abatzoglou called “essentially a recipe for large fires.” Leland averaged those models to create his map.

In addition to the visualization, Leland also launched a Kickstarter campaign for biodegradable stickers and posters bearing images of flames and the words “if we fail to act this place will burn.” Leland said campaign supporters can buy the stickers and post them in their communities to try to localize the reality of climate change’s effects. In recent years, he launched a similar campaign called “This Place Will Be Water” that shows coastal areas projected to be affected by rising sea levels.

Leland said the project will make existing information on climate change more accessible to everyday people who may not otherwise see it.

“There’s all this data that’s locked inside these academic journals and PDFs, and it’s great for academics and scientists, but if you’re a normal person who wants to see what’s happening where you live … it’s not very helpful,” he said.

He also said he hopes reframing the information into county data will give people a “political boundary” to push local leaders for action on climate change.

“It’s very difficult to feel like you have a voice in this other than frustration,” Leland said. “(This project is) giving people agency in their community. It’s a starting point and a mobilizing point.”

Abatzoglou said there are still ways to begin addressing the threat of future wildfires, including eliminating human-caused fires, which each year make up the majority of wildfire starts across the West. Another option? More fire, in the form of prescribed burns that can cut down fuel loads.

“People value these landscapes that burn,” Abatzoglou said. “We recreate in them. We use them to escape to. We like to visit landscapes that haven’t burned, even though fire should be in these landscapes. These places ought to burn. We’ve limited the amount these places can burn because we’ve suppressed them.”

Abatzoglou said the goal is not to eliminate fire completely but to try to avoid the kinds of catastrophic fires that regularly destroy homes and kill people. Leland’s project could be a wake-up call for many on how close we are to more of those catastrophic fires, he said.

“(The maps and data) certainly do paint a grim picture, but hopefully they never come to bid because we’ll act,” Abatzoglou said.