Warmer and drier climate over the past few decades has brought larger fire sizes and increased annual area burned in forested ecosystems of western North America, and continued increases in annual area burned are expected due to climate change. As warming continues, fires may also increase in severity and produce larger contiguous patches of severely burned areas. We used remotely sensed burn-severity data from 125 fires in the northern Cascade Range of Washington, USA, to explore relationships between fire size, severity, and the spatial pattern of severity. We examined relationships between climate and the annual area burned and the size of wildfires over a 25-year period. We tested the hypothesis that increased fire size is commensurate with increased burn severity and increased spatial aggregation of severely burned areas. We also asked how local ecological controls might modulate these relationships by comparing results over the whole study area (the northern Cascade Range) to those from four ecological subsections within it. We found significant positive relationships between climate and fire size, and between fire size and the proportion of high severity and spatial-pattern metrics that quantify the spatial aggregation of high-severity areas within fires, but the strength and significance of these relationships varied among the four subsections. In areas with more contiguous subalpine forests and less complex topography, the proportion and spatial aggregation of severely burned areas were more strongly correlated with fire size. If fire sizes increase in a warming climate, changes in the extent, severity, and spatial pattern of fire regimes are likely to be more pronounced in higher-severity fire regimes with less complex topography and more continuous fuels.
Cansler, C. Alina; McKenzie, Donald. 2014. Climate, fire size, and biophysical setting control fire severity and spatial pattern in the northern Cascade Range, USA. Ecological Applications. 24(5): 1037-1056.