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Fires In Keeping With Global Climate Change Predictions

The catastrophic fires in Southern California continued into their fourth day Wednesday.

Researchers at Oregon State University predicted 5 years ago that global climate change would produce rampant fires in Southern California.

As Andrew Theen reports, one of those researchers says fires on the level of the California blazes could become commonplace in uncommon areas.

It's not always easy being right.  Like most Americans, Oregon State University Professor Ron Neilson was transfixed to the television, watching images of houses engulfed in flames throughout Southern California.

Although he predicted this scenario, Neilson calls the fires "absolutely astonishing."

Ron Neilson: "It's one thing to forecast this stuff it's quite another to actually see these scenarios playing out in the real world."

Neilson is also a bio-climatologist with the USDA Forest Service.  He said it's unclear whether the fires that have ravaged over 430,000 acres in four days are a direct result of climate change, but he says they are "consistent" with it.

He's worried the fires in California could be "the tip of the iceberg."

The increasing variability of regional climate patterns has people like Neilson worried.  The theory is several wet years followed by quick dry-outs could bring catastrophic fires to less fire-prone forests like those in the East and South.

But what does this mean for Oregon?

Neilson says those variable conditions could happen here, with costly results.

Ron Neilson: "The ecosystems then will dry out the entire landscape.  Not just in little spots, but wholesale over huge large areas, could dry out vast areas of the landscape rather suddenly."

It doesn't help that people love to live in the outdoors.  Neilson calls it the wild-land urban interface.

Central Oregon residents can attest to that.  1,000 residents were evacuated at Black Butte Ranch this summer.

Neilson says despite the threat of catastrophic fires he expects most people will stay put.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell was in Portland speaking to the Society of American Foresters.  She said climate change is causing longer fire seasons and more destructive fires.

And Ron Neilson cautions that the scenarios researchers are talking about aren't in the distant future — they could be as little as a decade away.

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