Our objective was to infer the climate drivers of regionally synchronous fire years in dry forests of the U.S. northern Rockies in Idaho and western Montana. During our analysis period (1650-1900), we reconstructed fires from 9245 fire scars on 576 trees (mostly ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa P. & C. Lawson) at 21 sites and compared them to existing tree-ring reconstructions of climate (temperature and the Palmer Drought Severity Index [PDSI]) and large-scale climate patterns that affect modern spring climate in this region (El Niño-Southern Oscillation [ENSO] and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation [PDO]). We identified 32 regional-fire years as those with five or more sites with fire. Fires were remarkably widespread during such years, including one year (1748) in which fires were recorded at 10 sites across what are today seven national forests plus one site on state land. During regional-fire years, spring-summers were significantly warm and summers were significantly warm-dry whereas the opposite conditions prevailed during the 99 years when no fires were recorded at any of our sites (no-fire years). Climate in prior years was not significantly associated with regional- or no-fire years. Years when fire was recorded at only a few of our sites occurred under a broad range of climate conditions, highlighting the fact that the regional climate drivers of fire are most evident when fires are synchronized across a large area. No-fire years tended to occur during La Niña years, which tend to have anomalously deep snowpacks in this region. However, ENSO was not a significant driver of regional-fire years, consistent with the greater influence of La Niña than El Niño conditions on the spring climate of this region. PDO was not a significant driver of past fire, despite being a strong driver of modern spring climate and modern regional-fire years in the northern Rockies.
Dataset for this publication