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Climate relationships with increasing wildfire in the southwestern US from 1984 to 2015

January 30, 2020

Over the last several decades in forest and woodland ecosystems of the southwestern United States, wildfire size and severity have increased, thereby increasing the vulnerability of these systems to type conversions, invasive species, and other disturbances. A combination of land use history and climate change is widely thought to be contributing to the changing fire regimes. We examined climate-fire relationships in forest and woodland ecosystems from 1984 – 2015 in Arizona and New Mexico using 1) an expanded satellite-derived burn severity dataset that incorporates over one million additional burned hectares when compared to MTBS data, and 2) climate variables including temperature, precipitation, and vapor pressure deficit (VPD). Regional climate-fire relationships were assessed by correlating annual area burned, area burned at high and low severity, and percent high severity with fire season (May-August) and water-year (October-September) climate variables. We also analyzed relationships between climate and high-severity fire at the scale of the individual fires using a hurdle model. We found that increasing temperature and VPD and decreasing precipitation were associated with increasing area burned regionally, and that area burned at high severity had the strongest relationships with climate metrics. The relationship between climate and fire activity in the Southwest appears to be strengthening since 2000. VPD-fire correlations were consistently as strong as, or stronger than, temperature or precipitation variables alone, both regionally and at the scale of the individual fires. Notably, at the scale of the individual fires, temperature and precipitation were not significant predictors of fire activity. Thus, our results support the use of VPD as a more integrative climate metric to forecast fire activity. We suggest that the strong relationship between VPD and fire activity may be useful to assess the likelihood of high-severity fire occurrence through continued development of the high-severity fire threshold model we present. The link between increasing aridity and increasing wildfire activity suggests a future with more fire in Southwest forests and woodlands with projected warming, underscoring the urgency of restoration in dry forests to reduce the likelihood of uncharacteristic, large high-severity fires.

Publication Year 2020
Title Climate relationships with increasing wildfire in the southwestern US from 1984 to 2015
DOI 10.1016/j.foreco.2019.117861
Authors Stephanie Mueller, Andrea E. Thode, Ellis Margolis, Larissa Yocom, Jesse M. Young, José M. Iniguez
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Forest Ecology and Management
Index ID 70209826
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center