Intense heat and prolonged drought are helping make this one of the worst wildfire seasons ever in California, according to Virginia Tech’s Adam Coates, an expert in forest fire ecology and management.  

“Extreme heat occurring with dry conditions can intensify a lack of moisture because as ambient air temperature increases, fuels ‘pre-heat.’ In this way, less energy is needed to create an ignition because the temperature of the fuels is already elevated. Wind speed and direction and low relative humidity can also exacerbate these conditions, increasing probabilities for increased ignitions and fire spread,” said Coates.

“Drought and extreme heat may also lessen the defense mechanisms that trees and other vegetation might use to protect themselves from other potential disturbances, such as insects and pathogen,” he said. “Over time, vegetation may be more susceptible to the effects of these organisms, the vegetation may die, and subsequently new fuels may be added to a given location.”

Coates is an assistant professor in the department of forest resources and environmental conservation, in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  

“In California and other areas, warm and dry conditions have been extended beyond the summer months and into autumn and early winter in some years,” said Coates. “This essentially extends our ‘wildfire season’ and provides increased chances for ignitions and conditions that are conducive to rapid fire spread.”

“It also taxes the resources – the people, equipment, money -- used to suppress wildfire ignitions. Many of those resources are also used to proactively manage fuels in many locations through the use of controlled and managed prescribed fire.”

Dr. Coates maintains an active research program focused primarily on fire ecology. This includes elements of fire behavior, fuels, fire effects, silviculture, and restoration ecology.  Read more here.  

Schedule an interview

To secure a live or recorded interview with Adam Coates, contact Bill Foy by email, or by phone at (540) 998-0288, or Shannon Andrea by email, or by phone at (703) 399-9494.

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