Climate change and future fire regimes: Examples from California

Geoscience Canada
By:  and 



Climate and weather have long been noted as playing key roles in wildfire activity, and global warming is expected to exacerbate fire impacts on natural and urban ecosystems. Predicting future fire regimes requires an understanding of how temperature and precipitation interact to control fire activity. Inevitably this requires historical analyses that relate annual burning to climate variation. Fuel structure plays a critical role in determining which climatic parameters are most influential on fire activity, and here, by focusing on the diversity of ecosystems in California, we illustrate some principles that need to be recognized in predicting future fire regimes. Spatial scale of analysis is important in that large heterogeneous landscapes may not fully capture accurate relationships between climate and fires. Within climatically homogeneous subregions, montane forested landscapes show strong relationships between annual fluctuations in temperature and precipitation with area burned; however, this is strongly seasonal dependent; e.g., winter temperatures have very little or no effect but spring and summer temperatures are critical. Climate models that predict future seasonal temperature changes are needed to improve fire regime projections. Climate does not appear to be a major determinant of fire activity on all landscapes. Lower elevations and lower latitudes show little or no increase in fire activity with hotter and drier conditions. On these landscapes climate is not usually limiting to fires but these vegetation types are ignition-limited. Moreover, because they are closely juxtaposed with human habitations, fire regimes are more strongly controlled by other direct anthropogenic impacts. Predicting future fire regimes is not rocket science; it is far more complicated than that. Climate change is not relevant to some landscapes, but where climate is relevant, the relationship will change due to direct climate effects on vegetation trajectories, as well as by feedback processes of fire effects on vegetation distribution, plus policy changes in how we manage ecosystems.
Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Climate change and future fire regimes: Examples from California
Series title Geoscience Canada
DOI 10.3390/geosciences6030037
Volume 6
Issue 37
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher MDPI AG
Contributing office(s) Western Ecological Research Center
Description 14 p.
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