Wildland fire as a self-regulating mechanism: The role of previous burns and weather in limiting fire progression

Sean A. Parks, Lisa M. Holsinger, Carol Miller, Cara R. Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Theory suggests that natural fire regimes can result in landscapes that are both self-regulating and resilient to fire. For example, because fires consume fuel, they may create barriers to the spread of future fires, thereby regulating fire size. Top-down controls such as weather, however, can weaken this effect. While empirical examples demonstrating this pattern-process feedback between vegetation and fire exist, they have been geographically limited or did not consider the influence of time between fires and weather. The availability of remotely sensed data identifying fire activity over the last four decades provides an opportunity to explicitly quantify the ability of wildland fire to limit the progression of subsequent fire. Furthermore, advances in fire progression mapping now allow an evaluation of how daily weather as a top-down control modifies this effect. In this study, we evaluated the ability of wildland fire to create barriers that limit the spread of subsequent fire along a gradient representing time between fires in four large study areas in the western United States. Using fire progression maps in conjunction with weather station data, we also evaluated the influence of daily weather. Results indicate that wildland fire does limit subsequent fire spread in all four study areas, but this effect decays over time; wildland fire no longer limits subsequent fire spread 6-18 years after fire, depending on the study area. We also found that the ability of fire to regulate subsequent fire progression was substantially reduced under extreme conditions compared to moderate weather conditions in all four study areas. This study increases understanding of the spatial feedbacks that can lead to self-regulating landscapes as well as the effects of top-down controls, such as weather, on these feedbacks. Our results will be useful to managers who seek to restore natural fire regimes or to exploit recent burns when managing fire.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1478-1492
Number of pages15
JournalEcological Applications
Volume25
Issue number6
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015

Keywords

  • Fire history
  • Fire progression
  • Fire spread
  • Fuel break
  • Fuel treatment
  • Interacting fires
  • Reburn
  • Self-limiting
  • Self-regulation
  • Time-dependence
  • Top-down vs. bottom-up controls
  • Wilderness

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