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Peatland Hydrological Dynamics as A Driver of Landscape Connectivity and Fire Activity in the Boreal Plain of Canada

Thompson, Dan K., Simpson, Brian N., Whitman, Ellen, Barber, Quinn E., Parisien, Marc-André
Forests 2019 v.10 no.7
air temperature, boreal forests, burning, climate change, drought, fire frequency, fire spread, fuel moisture index, fuels (fire ecology), habitat connectivity, humidity, landscapes, models, peatlands, vegetation cover, water table, wildfires, wind speed, Canada
Drought is usually the precursor to large wildfires in northwestern boreal Canada, a region with both large wildfire potential and extensive peatland cover. Fire is a contagious process, and given weather conducive to burning, wildfires may be naturally limited by the connectivity of fuels and the connectivity of landscapes such as peatlands. Boreal peatlands fragment landscapes when wet and connect them when dry. The aim of this paper is to construct a framework by which the hydrological dynamics of boreal peatlands can be incorporated into standard wildfire likelihood models, in this case the Canadian Burn-P3 model. We computed hydrologically dynamic vegetation cover for peatlands (37% of the study area) on a real landscape in the Canadian boreal plain, corresponding to varying water table levels representing wet, moderate, and severely dry fuel moisture and hydrological conditions. Despite constant atmospheric drivers of fire spread (air temperature, humidity, and wind speed) between drought scenarios, fire activity increased 6-fold in moderate drought relative to a low drought baseline; severe (1 in 40 years) drought scenarios drove fires into previously fire-restrictive environments. Fire size increased 5-fold during moderate drought conditions and a further 20–25% during severe drought. Future climate change is projected to lead to an increase in the incidence of severe drought in boreal forests, leading to increases in burned area due to increasing fire frequency and size where peatlands are most abundant. Future climate change in regions where peatlands have historically acted as important barriers to fire spread may amplify ongoing increases in fire activity already observed in Western North American forests.