Climatic change, wildfire, and conservation

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McKenzie, Donald, Ze’ev Gedalof, David L. Peterson, and Philip Mote
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Climatic variability is a dominant factor affecting large wildfires in the western United States, an observation supported by palaeoecological data on charcoal in lake sediments and reconstructions from fire-scarred trees. Although current fire management focuses on fuel reductions to bring fuel loadings back to their historical ranges, at the regional scale extreme fire weather is still the dominant influence on area burned and fire severity. Current forecasting tools are limited to short-term predictions of fire weather, but increased understanding of large-scale oceanic and atmospheric patterns in the Pacific Ocean (e.g., El Niño Southern Oscillation, Pacific Decadal Oscillation) may improve our ability to predict climatic variability at seasonal to annual leads. Associations between these quasi-periodic patterns and fire occurrence, though evident in some regions, have been difficult to establish in others. Increased temperature in the future will likely extend fire seasons throughout the western United States, with more fires occurring earlier and later than is currently typical, and will increase the total area burned in some regions. If climatic change increases the amplitude and duration of extreme fire weather, we can expect significant changes in the distribution and abundance of dominant plant species in some ecosystems, which would thus affect habitat of some sensitive plant and animal species. Some species that are sensitive to fire may decline, whereas the distribution and abundance of species favored by fire may be enhanced. The effects of climatic change will partially depend on the extent to which resource management modifies vegetation structure and fuels.


McKenzie, Donald, Ze’ev Gedalof, David L. Peterson, and Philip Mote. 2004. “Climatic Change, Wildfire, and Conservation.” Conservation Biology 18 (4): 890–902. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00492.x.