The impact of antecedent fire area on burned area in southern California coastal ecosystems

Journal of Environmental Management
By: , and 



Frequent wildfire disasters in southern California highlight the need for risk reduction strategies for the region, of which fuel reduction via prescribed burning is one option. However, there is no consensus about the effectiveness of prescribed fire in reducing the area of wildfire. Here, we use 29 years of historical fire mapping to quantify the relationship between annual wildfire area and antecedent fire area in predominantly shrub and grassland fuels in seven southern California counties, controlling for annual variation in weather patterns. This method has been used elsewhere to measure leverage: the reduction in wildfire area resulting from one unit of prescribed fire treatment. We found little evidence for a leverage effect (leverage = zero). Specifically our results showed no evidence that wildfire area was negatively influenced by previous fires, and only weak relationships with weather variables rainfall and Santa Ana wind occurrences, which were variables included to control for inter-annual variation. We conclude that this is because only 2% of the vegetation burns each year and so wildfires rarely encounter burned patches and chaparral shrublands can carry a fire within 1 or 2 years after previous fire. Prescribed burning is unlikely to have much influence on fire regimes in this area, though targeted treatment at the urban interface may be effective at providing defensible space for protecting assets. These results fit an emerging global model of fire leverage which position California at the bottom end of a continuum, with tropical savannas at the top (leverage = 1: direct replacement of wildfire by prescribed fire) and Australian eucalypt forests in the middle (leverage ∼ 0.25).

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title The impact of antecedent fire area on burned area in southern California coastal ecosystems
Series title Journal of Environmental Management
DOI 10.1016/j.jenvman.2012.08.042
Volume 113
Year Published 2012
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Western Ecological Research Center
Description 7 p.
First page 301
Last page 307
Country United States
State California
County Los Angeles County, Orange County, Riverside County, San Diego County, San Luis Obispo County, Santa Barbara County, Ventura County
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