April 2017
253 - 268

Different historical fire–climate patterns in California


The relationship between annual variation in area burned and seasonal temperatures and precipitation was investigated for the major climate divisions in California. Historical analyses showed marked differences in fires on montane and foothill landscapes. Based on roughly a century of data, there are five important lessons on fire–climate relationships in California: (1) seasonal variations in temperature appear to have had minimal influence on area burned in the lower elevation, mostly non-forested, landscapes; (2) temperature has been a significant factor in controlling fire activity in higher elevation montane forests, but this varied greatly with season – winter and autumn temperatures showed no significant effect, whereas spring and summer temperatures were important determinants of area burned; (3) current season precipitation has been a strong controller of fire activity in forests, with drier years resulting in greater area burned on most United States Forest Service (USFS) lands in the state, but the effect of current-year precipitation was decidedly less on lower elevation California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection lands; (4) in largely grass-dominated foothills and valleys the magnitude of prior-year rainfall was positively tied to area burned in the following year, and we hypothesise that this is tied to greater fuel volume in the year following high rainfall. In the southern part of the state this effect has become stronger in recent decades and this likely is due to accelerated type conversion from shrubland to grassland in the latter part of the 20th century; (5) the strongest fire–climate models were on USFS lands in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and these explained 42–52% of the variation in area burned; however, the models changed over time, with winter and spring precipitation being the primary drivers in the first half of the 20th century, but replaced by spring and summer temperatures after 1960.


Keeley Jon E., Syphard Alexandra D. (2017) Different historical fire–climate patterns in California. International Journal of Wildland Fire 26, 253-268. doi: 10.1071/WF16102

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