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Human influence on California fire regimes

January 1, 2007

Periodic wildfire maintains the integrity and species composition of many ecosystems, including the mediterranean-climate shrublands of California. However, human activities alter natural fire regimes, which can lead to cascading ecological effects. Increased human ignitions at the wildland-urban interface (WUI) have recently gained attention, but fire activity and risk are typically estimated using only biophysical variables. Our goal was to determine how humans influence fire in California and to examine whether this influence was linear, by relating contemporary (2000) and historic (1960-2000) fire data to both human and biophysical variables. Data for the human variables included fine-resolution maps of the WUI produced using housing density and land cover data. Interface WUI, where development abuts wildland vegetation, was differentiated from intermix WUI, where development intermingles with wildland vegetation. Additional explanatory variables included distance to WUI, population density, road density, vegetation type, and ecoregion. All data were summarized at the county level and analyzed using bivariate and multiple regression methods. We found highly significant relationships between humans and fire on the contemporary landscape, and our models explained fire frequency (R2 = 0.72) better than area burned (R2 = 0.50). Population density, intermix WUI, and distance to WUI explained the most variability in fire frequency, suggesting that the spatial pattern of development may be an important variable to consider when estimating fire risk. We found nonlinear effects such that fire frequency and area burned were highest at intermediate levels of human activity, but declined beyond certain thresholds. Human activities also explained change in fire frequency and area burned (1960-2000), but our models had greater explanatory power during the years 1960-1980, when there was more dramatic change in fire frequency. Understanding wildfire as a function of the spatial arrangement of ignitions and fuels on the landscape, in addition to nonlinear relationships, will be important to fire managers and conservation planners because fire risk may be related to specific levels of housing density that can be accounted for in land use planning. With more fires occurring in close proximity to human infrastructure, there may also be devastating ecological impacts if development continues to grow farther into wildland vegetation. ?? 2007 by the Ecological Society of America.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2007
Title Human influence on California fire regimes
DOI 10.1890/06-1128.1
Authors A.D. Syphard, V. C. Radeloff, J. E. Keeley, T. J. Hawbaker, M.K. Clayton, S. I. Stewart, R. B. Hammer
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecological Applications
Index ID 70029709
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse