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Mapping Fire Regimes in the Western United States

Photo of  Forest Service scientists evaluated the relationship between climate and fire regime characteristics. The left panel depicts ecoregions of the western U.S. The middle panel shows each ecoregion's climate in terms of climatic proxies for productivity and long-term fuel moisture. The right panel shows broad-scale trends in fire activity and fire severity; for example, more productive and wetter ecoregions generally experience higher severity fires. This study was conducted using fire data in areas dominated by designated wilderness and national park land. Sean Parks, USDA Forest Service Forest Service scientists evaluated the relationship between climate and fire regime characteristics. The left panel depicts ecoregions of the western U.S. The middle panel shows each ecoregion's climate in terms of climatic proxies for productivity and long-term fuel moisture. The right panel shows broad-scale trends in fire activity and fire severity; for example, more productive and wetter ecoregions generally experience higher severity fires. This study was conducted using fire data in areas dominated by designated wilderness and national park land. Sean Parks, USDA Forest ServiceSnapshot : Forest managers and policymakers are increasingly concerned about potential for increased fire activity and severity in future years. Although many studies have focused on how fire activity is expected to change under future climate scenarios, there have been little to no studies on how fire severity is expected to change. To better understand how fire severity will change in the future, a necessary first step is to better understand the climatic drivers of contemporary fire severity patterns.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Parks, Sean A.  
Research Location : Missoula, MT
Research Station : Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS)
Year : 2014
Highlight ID : 691

Summary

A fire regime is often described as the frequency and severity of wildfires in a given area or ecosystem. Forest managers and policy makers are increasingly interested in knowing how these fire regime characteristics (fire frequency and severity) will change under a future climate. However, a necessary first step for predicting future changes in fire regimes is the ability to map current fire regimes. To date, most efforts to map fire regimes have been qualitative, making it difficult to determine the climatic factors driving fire regimes. In a recent study, Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute scientists have quantified relationships between climatic variables and both fire activity and severity. These quantitative relationships are being used to map current fire regimes in the western United States and to map the distribution of fire regimes under a future climate. The scientists relied heavily on climate and fire data from wilderness areas and national parks in the western U.S., where anthropogenic influences, such as forest management, are minimal relative to unprotected lands. An unexpected finding of this study was that the relationship between climate and fire weakened as the human footprint increased. This study provides insight into the "natural" relationships between climate and fire and allows researchers to identify areas with disrupted fire regimes that may be in need of restoration.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • Carol Miller, Research Ecologist, RMRS, 4901-Wilderness
  • Marc Parisien, Natural Resources Canada
  • Solomon Dobrowski, University of Montana

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