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Individual Highlight

The History of Fire in the United States and its Future Under Changing Climates

Photo of Prediction of historic fire frequency from 165-1850 for the continental U.S. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.Prediction of historic fire frequency from 165-1850 for the continental U.S. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.Snapshot : In the past, North America was a fire continent, but the role of fire was highly variable across the country and over time. Fire history research quantitatively defines key attributes of past fire regimes. This is key ecological information that informs efforts to restore fire-dependent natural communities. Forest Service scientists are providing site-specific fire histories throughout eastern North America to assist managers in their ecosystem and landscape restoration efforts. Their continental models of fire occurrence based on climate variables are used to predict past or future fire activity and serve as useful input to restoration and fire management plans for local to national concerns.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Dey, Daniel C., Dr. 
Research Location : Various locations throughout the Northern Region
Research Station : Northern Research Station (NRS)
Year : 2016
Highlight ID : 958


Scientists at the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station and their collaborators recently reconstructed the history of fire in portions of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. This research adds to their work in the Great Plains, Midwest and Southern U.S., and Canada. Site-specific fire histories define many attributes of a fire regime such as frequency, seasonality, and severity, and reveal how fire varied over time in relation to changing climate, and human populations and cultures. Understanding the changing role of fire helps explain the major shifts in the dominance and distribution of natural communities. Fire histories are used to develop prescriptions for restoration of natural communities such as savannas and woodlands. Collectively, over 170 fire histories from across the U.S. have been used to develop a continental model that predicts fire frequency based on climatic variables. The model was first used to predict historic (pre-European) fire frequency but has since been used to assess the probability of fire in the future under a range of climate scenarios. These assessments can be used to develop state and regional plans to reduce risk to catastrophic wildfires, to restore natural communities and their biodiversity, and to allocate limited resources to priority areas.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • Cheqaumegon-Nicolet National Forest
  • Chippewa National Forest
  • Huron-Manistee National Forest
  • Region 9
  • Maine Dept. Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry
  • Pennsylvania Game Commission
  • Prentiss & Carlisle Forest Resource Management and Timberland Services