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Trends and causes of severity, size, and number of fires in northwestern California, USA


J. D. Miller
H. D. Safford
C. M. Ramirez



Publication type:

Scientific Journal (JRNL)

Primary Station(s):

Pacific Southwest Research Station


Ecological Applications


Research in the last several years has indicated that fire size and frequency are on the rise in western U.S. forests. Although fire size and frequency are important, they do not necessarily scale with ecosystem effects of fire, as different ecosystems have different ecological and evolutionary relationships with fire. Our study assessed trends and patterns in fire size and frequency from 1910 to 2008 (all fires > 40 ha), and the percentage of high-severity in fires from 1987 to 2008 (all fires > 400 ha) on the four national forests of northwestern California. During 1910–2008, mean and maximum fire size and total annual area burned increased, but we found no temporal trend in the percentage of high-severity fire during 1987–2008. The time series of severity data was strongly influenced by four years with region-wide lightning events that burned huge areas at primarily low–moderate severity. Regional fire rotation reached a high of 974 years in 1984 and fell to 95 years by 2008. The percentage of high-severity fire in conifer-dominated forests was generally higher in areas dominated by smaller-diameter trees than in areas with larger-diameter trees. For Douglas-fir forests, the percentage of highseverity fire did not differ significantly between areas that re-burned and areas that only burned once (10% vs. 9%) when re-burned within 30 years. Percentage of high-severity fire decreased to 5% when intervals between first and second fires were .30 years. In contrast, in both mixed-conifer and fir/high-elevation conifer forests, the percentage of high-severity fire was less when re-burned within 30 years compared to first-time burned (12% vs. 16% for mixed conifer; 11% vs. 19% for fir/high-elevation conifer). Additionally, the percentage of highseverity fire did not differ whether the re-burn interval was less than or greater than 30 years. Years with larger fires and greatest area burned were produced by region-wide lightning events, and characterized by less winter and spring precipitation than years dominated by smaller human-ignited fires. Overall percentage of high-severity fire was generally less in years characterized by these region-wide lightning events. Our results suggest that, under certain conditions, wildfires could be more extensively used to achieve ecological and management objectives in northwestern California.


Miller, J. D.; Skinner, Carl; Safford, H. D.; Knapp, Eric E.; Ramirez, C. M. 2012. Trends and causes of severity, size, and number of fires in northwestern California, USA. Ecological Applications, Vol. 22(1): 184-203.


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