You are here

Ecological effects of large fires on US landscapes: benefit or catastrophe?

Posted date: April 06, 2009
Publication Year: 
Authors: Keane II, Robert E.; Agee, James K.; Fule, Peter; Keeley, Jon E.; Key, Carl; Kitchen, Stanley G.; Miller, Richard; Schulte, Lisa A.
Publication Series: 
Miscellaneous Publication
Source: International Journal of Wildland Fire. 17: 696-712.


The perception is that today's large fires are an ecological catastrophe because they burn vast areas with high intensities and severities. However, little is known of the ecological impacts of large fires on both historical and contemporary landscapes. The present paper presents a review of the current knowledge of the effects of large fires in the United States by important ecosystems written by regional experts. The ecosystems are (1) ponderosa pine-Douglas-fir, (2) sagebrush-grasslands, (3) pinon-juniper, (4) chaparral, (5) mixed-conifer, and (6) spruce-fir. This review found that large fires were common on most historical western US landscapes and they will continue to be common today with exceptions. Sagebrush ecosystems are currently experiencing larger, more severe, and more frequent large fires compared to historical conditions due to exotic cheatgrass invasions. Historical large fires in south-west ponderosa pine forest created a mixed severity mosaic dominated by non-lethal surface fires while today's large fires are mostly high severity crown fires. While large fires play an important role in landscape ecology for most regions, their importance is much less in the dry pinon-juniper forests and sagebrush-grasslands. Fire management must address the role of large fires in maintaining the health of many US fire-dominated ecosystems.


Keane, Robert E.; Agee, James K.; Fule, Peter; Keeley, Jon E.; Key, Carl; Kitchen, Stanley G.; Miller, Richard; Schulte, Lisa A. 2008. Ecological effects of large fires on US landscapes: benefit or catastrophe?. International Journal of Wildland Fire. 17: 696-712.