Paleoecological perspectives on fire ecology: Revisiting the fire-regime concept

Cathy Whitlock, Philip E. Higuera, David B. McWethy, Christy E. Briles

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273 Scopus citations


Fire is well recognized as a key Earth system process, but its causes and influences vary greatly across spatial and temporal scales. The controls of fire are often portrayed as a set of superimposed triangles, with processes ranging from oxygen to weather to climate, combustion to fuel to vegetation, and local to landscape to regional drivers over broadening spatial and lengthening temporal scale. Most ecological studies and fire management plans consider the effects of fire-weather and fuels on local to sub-regional scales and time frames of years to decades. Fire reconstructions developed from high-resolution tree-ring records and lake-sediment data that span centuries to millennia offer unique insights about fire's role that cannot otherwise be obtained. Such records help disclose the historical range of variability in fire activity over the duration of a vegetation type; the role of large-scale changes of climate, such as seasonal changes in summer insolation; the consequences of major reorganizations in vegetation; and the influence of prehistoric human activity in different ecological settings. This paleoecological perspective suggests that fire-regime definitions, which focus on the characteristic frequency, size and intensity of fire and particular fuel types, should be reconceptualized to better include the controls of fire regimes over the duration of a particular biome. We suggest that approaches currently used to analyze fire regimes across multiple spatial scales should be employed to examine fire occurrence across multiple temporal scales. Such cross-scale patterns would better reveal the full variability of particular fire regimes and their controls, and provide relevant information for the types of fire regimes likely to occur in the future with projected climate and land-use change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6-23
Number of pages18
JournalOpen Ecology Journal
Issue numberSPEC.ISS.1
StatePublished - 2010


  • Charcoal records
  • Fire history
  • Fire regimes
  • Fire triangle
  • Fire-climate
  • Fire-human
  • Fire-vegetation


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