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What Drives Low-Severity Fire in the Southwestern USA?

Parks, Sean A., Dobrowski, Solomon Z., Panunto, Matthew H.
Forests 2018 v.9 no.4
climatic factors, coniferous forests, dry forests, fuels, probability, remote sensing, topography, Southwestern United States
Many dry conifer forests in the southwestern USA and elsewhere historically (prior to the late 1800’s) experienced fairly frequent surface fire at intervals ranging from roughly five to 30 years. Due to more than 100 years of successful fire exclusion, however, many of these forests are now denser and more homogenous, and therefore they have a greater probability of experiencing stand-replacing fire compared to prior centuries. Consequently, there is keen interest in restoring such forests to conditions that are conducive to low-severity fire. Yet, there have been no regional assessments in the southwestern USA that have specifically evaluated those factors that promote low-severity fire. Here, we defined low-severity fire using satellite imagery and evaluated the influence of several variables that potentially drive such fire; these variables characterize live fuel, topography, climate (30-year normals), and inter-annual climate variation. We found that live fuel and climate variation (i.e., year-of-fire climate) were the main factors driving low-severity fire; fuel was ~2.4 times more influential than climate variation. Low-severity fire was more likely in settings with lower levels of fuel and in years that were wetter and cooler than average. Surprisingly, the influence of topography and climatic normals was negligible. Our findings elucidate those conditions conducive to low-severity fire and provide valuable information to land managers tasked with restoring forest structures and processes in the southwestern USA and other regions dominated by dry forest types.