Wildland Fire

E. Kane

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Climate change will likely alter the atmospheric patterns that affect fire weather. Changes in fire patterns will in turn impact carbon cycling, forest structure, and species composition. In the summary paper 'Wildland Fire and Climate Change', Forest Service scientists who study wildfire explain what is known about these interactions and what management options are available to resource managers.

We've also provided readings on this subject that range from technical peer-reviewed literature to general briefings on fire research and the climate-fire connection. Browse descriptions of some of the current Forest Service research projects that study fire and climate change, recommended websites, and fire-related tools for resource managers. All resources have been recommended by the Wildland Fire and Climate Change authors and the CCRC production team.

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Don McKenzie, Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Lab; Faith Ann Heinsch, Rocky Mountain Research Station; and Warren E. Heilman, Northern Research Station.

An archived version of this topic paper is available.


Fire has been a part of most of Earth's ecosystems for millions of years (1). Fire interacts with climate and vegetation (fuel) in predictable ways that are documented in lake-sediment records (2,3,4,5), fire-scarred trees (6,7,8), forest age-class distributions (9), and contemporary instrumental records (10,11). Understanding climate-fire-vegetation interactions is essential for addressing nation-wide issues associated with climate change, particularly

  • effects on regional circulation and other atmospheric patterns that affect fire weather (12).
  • effects of changing fire regimes on the carbon cycle, forest structure, and species composition (13).
  • complications from land-use change, invasive species, and an increasing wildland-urban interface (14).

Large fires (>300 acres) account for more than 95 percent of the area burned by wildfires in the United States in a given year. These fires are frequently associated with specific mesoscale (~5-1000 km) and broad scale (>1000 km) atmospheric circulation, temperature, and moisture patterns in different regions of the U.S. (15,16,17). The short-term weather conditions that are conducive to severe fires (i.e. fire weather) are manifestations of these patterns. For example, in maritime forests of the Pacific Northwest, hot dry conditions combined with easterly winds are necessary to lower fuel moisture to the point of supporting widespread fire (18). Similar conditions, associated with blocking ridges, account for much of the area burned in the Canadian boreal forest (19,20). In a very different ecosystem, southern California chaparral, seasonal weather in the form of Santa Ana winds accounts for most if not all of the large severe fires. Issues for land management generally arise at these regional scales, but projecting how they will change in response to larger-scale patterns is more challenging than projecting large-scale patterns themselves into the future.

Interactions between climate, fire, and vegetation, and their consequences, vary regionally and among ecosystem types within regions. For example, most forest ecosystems across the northwestern United States and Alaska have abundant fuels, and total fire extent across this region varies with fuel condition -- regional drought years produce low fuel moisture and high flammability (11). In contrast, in arid mountains and rangelands of the Southwest, alternating wet and dry years, associated with cycles of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and changing fuel abundance and connectivity, account for much of the interannual variability in area burned (6,11,21). In the American Southeast, where fire plays a major role in ecosystems, fuels are abundant, and total fire extent varies with fuel condition, but changes in fire extent are also tied to the ENSO cycle, with La Niña years bringing reduced precipitation and increased fire (22). In drier forests US-wide, and often in moist southeastern forests, large fires can be the result of a "perfect storm" of weather conditions, fuel availability, and stand conditions. For example, portions of the Tripod Complex Fire in north central Washington that burned with highest intensity had been attacked recently by mountain pine beetles, leaving abundant dead fuels in the canopy that were vulnerable to high-intensity crown fire (see images below) (23).

  • Rio Grande National Forest in Colorado

    On the Rio Grande National Forest in Colorado, conditions including drought and spruce beetle-killed trees may have contributed to 2013 wildfires. Credit: Steve Brigham.

  • map of Tripod Complex Fire of 2006

    The Tripod Complex Fire (2006) in north-central Washington contained many higher-elevation lodgepole pine stands that burned with exceptionally high intensity, due to mountain pine beetle outbreak in the years before. Credit: Robert A. Norheim.

  • mountain pine beetle burned in the Tripod Complex Fire

    The timing of other disturbances can exacerbate or mitigate wildfire severity. In the Tripod Complex Fire, patches that burned with the highest severity (right) had been affected by mountain pine beetle, compared with lower-severity patches (left). Credit: Christina Lyons-Tinsley.

Likely Changes

Climate warming associated with elevated greenhouse-gas concentrations may create an atmospheric and fuel environment that is more conducive to large severe fires. The consensus view of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is that projected higher summer temperatures will likely increase the annual window of high fire risk by 10-30%, leading to a potential increase in area burned in Canada of 74-118% by the year 2100 (24,25,26). General circulation model studies suggest that fire occurrence or area burned could increase across North America under a doubled CO2 environment because of increases in lightning activity, the frequency of surface pressure and associated circulation patterns conducive to surface drying, and fire-weather conditions in general that are conducive to severe wildfires (15,27,28,29).

Predictions past about 2040 are largely speculative given the current rate of increase in fossil fuel emissions (30), but a warmer climate will certainly amplify the effects of drought and is expected to increase the number of days in a year with flammable fuels, thereby extending fire seasons and area burned in ecoregions where fire extent is linked to fuel conditions (11). Most forests in the western United States fall into this category. In arid ecosystems, increased drought theoretically could reduce fuels to the point at which annual fire extent actually decreases (31). Statistical models linking area burned to water-balance deficit suggest that both these patterns may obtain (30), undermining coarse-scale predictions of huge increases in area burned in a warmer climate. Total forest area may also decrease with conversion of some forests to grasslands from the effects of more frequent fire (32). Further confounding predictions for arid ecosystems could be the continued spread of invasive plants such as buffelgrass and cheatgrass (33,34), which will increase fuel connectivity drastically. Overall, more fire is expected in western forests and rangelands for the foreseeable future, because of the preponderance of ecosystem types in which drought is strongly correlated with area burned. In the East, complex spatial patterns of land use and active prescribed fire programs make broad-scale predictions of area burned even more difficult than for the West; this requires ongoing research.

Future changes in fire frequency and severity are much harder to predict. Global and regional climate changes associated with elevated greenhouse gas concentrations could alter large weather patterns, thereby affecting fire-weather conducive to extreme fire behavior. The inherent complexity of analysis at "landscape scales" requires understanding both this atmospheric component and finer-scale controls on the ground. Even in a so-called "megafire" such as the Tripod Complex, fine-scale controls on fire spread, such as topographic barriers, can substantially change the spatial pattern of fire severity, both for individual fires and for fire regimes in the aggregate. At present we are able to suggest that at broad scales we can expect more large severe fires (increasing area burned at high severity), but are much less able to predict changes in fire severity within individual fires. Fire severity provides a negative feedback to fire frequency, particularly for area-based metrics of fire frequency such as the natural fire rotation or the fire cycle. It is therefore difficult to predict global changes in fire frequency in a warming climate, although estimates for specific fire regimes may be more tractable (35).

Options for Management

In some western dry forests, particularly those affected by 20th-century fire exclusion, thinning and surface fuel treatment (including prescribed burning) can reduce fire severity and fire hazard (36), although maintenance treatments may be required every 20 to 40 years. Strategic placement of treatments can greatly increase the effective area treated (37). In unmanaged forests, especially in areas in which fire suppression is difficult, expensive, or counterproductive to resource objectives, managers can take advantage of the self-limiting nature of wildfire. Fire spread rates and severity are reduced when a fire reaches a recently burned area (38).

Fuel treatments will be challenging to implement at spatial scales large enough to have much impact, especially if wildfire increases greatly in the future, but can enhance resilience on specific landscapes with high resource, economic, or political values (e.g., the wildland-urban interface). In the Southeast, undergrowth may grow even faster in warmer temperatures. Management practices may need to respond to an increase in available fuels, while anticipating a shortening of the prescribed burning "season", particularly in Florida (40), and increased scrutiny of prescribed fire for unacceptable degradation of air quality, which will be exacerbated by climate change (41).

Some general guidelines for adaptation (40,41,42)

  • Increase landscape diversity -- increase large-scale resilience, size of management units, and connectivity.
  • Maintain biological diversity -- experiment with species and genotype mixes, and identify species, populations, and communities that are sensitive to increased fire and develop conservation plans for them.
  • Plan for post-disturbance management -- treat fire and other ecological disturbances as normal processes and incorporate fire management into planning.
  • Maintain and improve the resilience of watersheds and aquatic ecosystems by implementing practices that protect, maintain, and restore watershed processes and services.
  • Implement early detection and rapid response -- monitor post-fire conditions, and eliminate or control exotic species early on.
  • Manage for realistic outcomes -- identify key thresholds and prioritize projects with a high probability of success; abandon hopeless causes; consider even alternatives that might be undesirable in an unchanging climate.
  • Incorporate climate change into restoration -- avoid trying to replicate historical conditions, but continue to learn lessons from historical variation.
  • Develop regulations and policies that take climate change into account -- raise awareness with stakeholders, and work with local stakeholders from the onset of projects.
  • Anticipate big surprises -- expect mega droughts, larger fires, species extirpations, loss of resilience and system collapses, and incorporate these events in planning.

For information on ongoing Tripod Fire research, contact Susan Prichard.

Metric Equivalents
1 acre = 0.405 hectares
Degree Fahrenheit (F) to Celsius (F-32) x 0.56 = C



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How to cite

McKenzie, D.; Heinsch, F.A.; Heilman, W.E. (January, 2011). Wildland Fire and Climate Change. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Climate Change Resource Center. www.fs.usda.gov/ccrc/topics/wildfire



These summaries represent Forest Service research related to fire and climate change. More examples will be added as our Research Roundup is updated.

1000 Years of Forest History in the Glass Creek Watershed, Eastern Sierra Nevada: Interpreting the influence of fire, climatic change, and environmental change on subalpine forest structure and composition
PSW scientists evaluate the relative roles of fire, climate change, and volcanic eruptions as architects of forest structure and composition over the past 1000 years.
Contact: Connie Millar

Disturbance Processes: Interactions of fire, climate, and other disturbance processes and their influences (singly and together) on sustainability of forest ecosystems.
Recurring fires and varying climate historically played a key role in influencing the species composition, stand structures, and landscape mosaics of most forest ecosystems in western North America. In Mediterranean climates, fires and variation in climate itself are key agents of change that may or may not match societal interests. These agents, singly and in concert, alter forests over a wide range of scales by damaging or killing some plants, stimulating regeneration and growth of other plants, and setting the stage for succession. In addition, fire affects many processes in the soil and forest floor by consuming organic matter and by inducing thermal and chemical changes.
Contact: Carl N. Skinner, Eric E. Knapp

Climate Change Effects on Historical Range of Variability of Two Large Landscapes in Central Utah
Land managers need to be able to generate landscape composition and structure reference time series under historical, current, and future climate conditions to effectively prioritize, design, and implement current landscape level restoration treatments. RMRS scientists are conducting a simulation study to generate reference conditions for three climate scenarios and three fire regime scenarios using the landscape fire succession model LANDSUM. LANDSUM is being parameterized and initialized using spatial data generated from the LANDFIRE prototype project. The variation of simulated burned area and dominant vegetation types will be compared with the current landscape to determine departure. These departures will then be compared across the two climate scenarios to determine the implications of changing fire regimes and climates to fire management.
Contact: Bob Keane

Climate Drivers of Fire and Fuel in the Northern Rockies: Past, Present and Future
RMRS scientists have data on fire extent and climate from almost four centuries (1650-2003) in the Idaho and western Montana. Our data corroborate and support Westerling et al. (2006) findings that climate variability and climate change are contributing to larger and more extensive fires across the West, but especially in the northern Rockies. We parameterized vegetation simulation model with information from these fire history data to simulate potential consequences of regional climate-fire interactions and management strategies on landscape patterns.
Contact: Carol Miller, Emily Heyerdahl

Disturbance Processes: Interactions of fire, climate, and other disturbance processes and their influences (singly and together) on sustainability of forest ecosystems
Recurring fires and varying climate historically played a key role in influencing the species composition, stand structures, and landscape mosaics of most forest ecosystems in western North America. In Mediterranean climates, fires and variation in climate itself are key agents of change that may or may not match societal interests. These agents, singly and in concert, alter forests over a wide range of scales by damaging or killing some plants, stimulating regeneration and growth of other plants, and setting the stage for succession. In addition, fire affects many processes in the soil and forest floor by consuming organic matter and by inducing thermal and chemical changes.
Contact: Carl N. Skinner, Eric E. Knapp

Eastern Area Modelling Consortium
The EAMC is a multi-agency coalition of researchers and managers at the Federal, State, and local levels that is focused on fire weather, fire behavior, and smoke transport issues in the north central and northeastern U.S. The EAMC carries out core fire science research and product development related to physical fire processes (including small-scale fire-fuel-atmosphere interactions and smoke plume behavior), fire characteristics at multiple scales, and fire danger assessment (including atmospheric processes associated with fire-weather development and evolution).
Contact: Warren Heilman

Effects of Climate Change on Wildfires (PDF, 36 pp, 2.47 M)
PSW scientists are developing statistical models to quantify, assess and forecast effects of climate change variables on wildland fires. This study is in collaboration with UC Merced School of Environmental Engineering and Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
Contact: Haiganoush Preisler

Fire and Climatic Variability in the Pacific Northwest (PDF, 44 pp, 1.04 M)
Understanding how fire has behaved in the past under different management scenarios can help in anticipating what fire patterns may be like in the future. In the Pacific Northwest, ongoing research aims to understand historic fire trends and their connection to climate.
Contact: Don McKenzie

Forest Economics and Policy
Shifting climate patterns contribute to changing disturbance regimes in southern forests (insect outbreaks, fire) and, in turn, affect the economic costs of these disturbances. Climate change may also play a role in the societal values placed on forest resources. This research unit explores many of the complex relationships that exist between changing forests conditions, human communities, and economic processes.
Contact: David Wear

Impacts of Disturbances and Climate on Carbon Sequestration and Biofuels
Currently, U.S. forests and forest products offset about 20% of the nation's fossil fuel emissions. However, recent findings cast doubt on the sustainability of this offset. First, the strength of the U.S. forest carbon offset may be weakening due to forest ageing, climate variability, and increasing natural disturbances. Second, climate change is expected to further increase frequencies of insect outbreaks and wildfire, and alter species composition in forest ecosystems, consequently influencing forest carbon pools in a significant way. These current and projected forest carbon cycle dynamics need to be considered in strategic forest planning and management decisions in coming decades if the nation's forests are to provide stable or even increasing ecosystem services.
Contact:Yude Pan, Richard Birdsey

Measuring wildfire potential using the Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI)
A study to project future wildfire potential trends is being conducted in the Center for Forest Disturbance Science, US Forest Service Southern Research Station. This project consists of three phases to project wildfire potential in the globe, the U.S., and the South, respectively. The first phase and second phases are completed, and the last one is underway. The first publication on global wildfire trends is available here.
Contact: Yongqiang Liu

Online Web Tool for Soil Erosion Prediction
The Water Erosion Prediction Project (WEPP), in the Soil and Water Engineering group at the Moscow Forest Sciences Laboratory, uses a number of specialized tools for roads, managed forests, and forests following wildfire to predict soil erosion. The daily climate parameter inputs into these predictive tools can be readily altered to reflect warmer or colder, and wetter or drier climates, by month. Our erosion model is physically-based. WEPP includes vegetation growth algorithms which are dependent on soil water availability and daily temperatures. Our predictive tools can thus show the interactions among climate, plant growth, and erosion. This means a drier and/or hotter climate may result in less vegetation, leading to either increased erosion because of reduced ground cover, or reduced erosion because of reduced precipitation. Because WEPP is driven by both temperature and precipitation, it can show the effects of changing climate on snow accumulation, melt, and runoff.
Contact: Bill Elliott

Plumas/Lassen Administrative Study Vegetation Module Forest Restoration in the Northern Sierra Nevada: Impacts on Structure, Fire Climate, and Ecosystem Resilience
PSW scientists focus on the effects of fuel treatments on forest structure, composition, understory microclimate, and succession, because changes in these conditions will define how fire and the forests responds to restoration.
Contact: Malcolm North

Predicting global change effects on forest biomass and composition in south-central Siberia
Multiple global changes such as timber harvest of previously unexploited areas and climate change will undoubtedly affect the composition and spatial distribution of boreal forests, which will in turn affect the ability of these forests to sequester carbon. To reliably predict future states of the boreal forest it is necessary to understand the complex interactions among forest regenerative processes (succession), natural disturbances (e.g., fire, wind and insects) and anthropogenic disturbances (e.g., timber harvest).
Contact:Eric Gustafson

Southern High Resolution Modeling Consortium
The Southern High Resolution Modeling Consortium (SHRMC) is a multi-agency group made up of scientists, air quality managers, fire regulators and others at multiple levels of governance. As a part of this group, SRS researchers are working on methods and tools to improve weather prediction, fire control, air quality, and smoke impact mitigation. Related modeling consortiums exist for other regions of the U.S.
Contact: Gary Achtemeier



A Consumer Guide: Tools to Manage Vegetation and Fuels
This publication provides a state-of-science summary of tools currently available for management of vegetation and fuels. Many of the tools in this publication cover climate and carbon related topics such as emissions from fire, fuel consumption due to fire, and climatic influences on fire patterns.

Fire & carbon/climate tools featured on the CCRC

First Order Fire Effects Model
FOFEM is a model that predicts first-order fire effects including tree mortality, fuel consumption, emissions (smoke) production, and soil heating caused by prescribed burning or wildfire.

Fuel Characteristic Classification System (FCCS)
FCCS quantifies and classifies the structural and geographical diversity of wildland fuels in the United States and predicts their relative fire hazard. Current versions also predict surface fire behavior and quantify carbon stores for each calculated fuelbed.

MC1 (MAPSS-Century 1)
MC1 was created to assess the potential impacts of global climate change on ecosystem structure and function. Users can access maps, datasets, and publications that were created using this model.

Other relevant tools

Wildland Fire Emissions Information System
Allows users to compute wildland fire emissions across North America at landscape to regional scales. WFEIS provides access to fire perimeter maps along with corresponding fuel loading data layers and fuel consumption models to compute wildland fire fuel consumption and fire emissions for specified locations and date ranges.