The increasing extent of wildfires has prompted investigation into alternative fire management approaches to complement the traditional strategies of fire suppression and fuels manipulation. Wildfire prevention through ignition reduction is an approach with potential for success, but ignitions result from a variety of causes. If some ignition sources result in higher levels of area burned, then ignition prevention programmes could be optimised to target these distributions in space and time. We investigated the most common ignition causes in two southern California sub-regions, where humans are responsible for more than 95% of all fires, and asked whether these causes exhibited distinct spatial or intra-annual temporal patterns, or resulted in different extents of fire in 10–29-year periods, depending on sub-region. Different ignition causes had distinct spatial patterns and those that burned the most area tended to occur in autumn months. Both the number of fires and area burned varied according to cause of ignition, but the cause of the most numerous fires was not always the cause of the greatest area burned. In both sub-regions, power line ignitions were one of the top two causes of area burned: the other major causes were arson in one sub-region and power equipment in the other. Equipment use also caused the largest number of fires in both sub-regions. These results have important implications for understanding why, where and how ignitions are caused, and in turn, how to develop strategies to prioritise and focus fire prevention efforts. Fire extent has increased tremendously in southern California, and because most fires are caused by humans, ignition reduction offers a potentially powerful management strategy, especially if optimised to reflect the distinct spatial and temporal distributions in different ignition causes.

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