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Historic fire regime in southern California shrublands

January 1, 2001

Historical variability in fire regime is a conservative indicator of ecosystem sustainability, and thus understanding the natural role of fire in chaparral ecosystems is necessary for proper fire management. It has been suggested that the “natural” fire regime was one of frequent small fires that fragmented the landscape into a fine-grained mixture of age classes that precluded large, catastrophic fires. Some researchers claim that this regime was lost because of highly effective fire suppression and conclude that if fire managers could “restore” a regime of frequent fires with widespread prescription burning, they could eliminate the hazard of catastrophic fires. The primary evidence in support of this model is a study that compared contemporary burning patterns in southern California, U.S.A., a region subject to fire suppression, with patterns in northern Baja California, Mexico, where there is less effective fire suppression. We found that differences in fire regime between these two regions are inconclusive and could not be ascribed conclusively to differences in fire suppression. Historical records suggest that the natural fire regime in southern California shrublands was rather coarse-grained and not substantively different from the contemporary regime. There is no evidence that fire-management policies have created the contemporary fire regime dominated by massive Santa Ana wind-driven fires. Increased expenditures on fire suppression and increased loss of property and lives are the result of human demographic patterns that place increasing demand on fire-suppression forces.

Publication Year 2001
Title Historic fire regime in southern California shrublands
DOI 10.1046/j.1523-1739.2001.00097.x
Authors J. E. Keeley, C. J. Fotheringham
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Conservation Biology
Index ID 1008342
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center