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Fire activity as a function of fire–weather seasonal severity and antecedent climate across spatial scales in southern Europe and Pacific western USA

November 1, 2015

Climate has a strong influence on fire activity, varying across time and space. We analyzed the relationships between fire–weather conditions during the main fire season and antecedent water-balance conditions and fires in two Mediterranean-type regions with contrasted management histories: five southern countries of the European Union (EUMED)(all fires); the Pacific western coast of the USA (California and Oregon, PWUSA)(national forest fires). Total number of fires (≥1 ha), number of large fires (≥100 ha) and area burned were related to mean seasonal fire weather index (FWI), number of days over the 90th percentile of the FWI, and to the standardized precipitation-evapotranspiration index (SPEI) from the preceding 3 (spring) or 8 (autumn through spring) months. Calculations were made at three spatial aggregations in each area, and models related first-difference (year-to-year change) of fires and FWI/climate variables to minimize autocorrelation. An increase in mean seasonal FWI resulted in increases in the three fire variables across spatial scales in both regions. SPEI contributed little to explain fires, with few exceptions. Negative water-balance (dry) conditions from autumn through spring (SPEI8) were generally more important than positive conditions (moist) in spring (SPEI3), both of which contributed positively to fires. The R2 of the models generally improved with increasing area of aggregation. For total number of fires and area burned, the R2 of the models tended to decrease with increasing mean seasonal FWI. Thus, fires were more susceptible to change with climate variability in areas with less amenable conditions for fires (lower FWI) than in areas with higher mean FWI values. The relationships were similar in both regions, albeit weaker in PWUSA, probably due to the wider latitudinal gradient covered in PWUSA than in EUMED. The large variance explained by some of the models indicates that large-scale seasonal forecast could help anticipating fire activity in the investigated areas.