Trends in wildfire severity: 1984 to 2010 in the Sierra Nevada, Modoc Plateau, and Southern Cascades, California, USA

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Miller, Jay D., and Safford, Hugh

Data from recent assessments indicate that the annual area of wildfires burning at high severity (where most trees are killed) has increased since 1984 across much of the south-western United States. Increasing areas of high-severity fire can occur when greater area is burned at constant proportion of high-severity fire, or when the proportion of high-severity fire within fire perimeters increases, or some combination of both. For the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment (SNFPA) area, which includes forestlands in eastern California and western Nevada, Miller et al. (2009 a ) concluded that the proportion of area burning at high severity in mixed-conifer forests had risen over the 1984 to 2004 period. However, no statistical assessment was made of the temporal trend in high-severity fire area because the analyzed dataset was incomplete in the early
years of the study period. In this update, we use satellite-derived estimates of fire severity from the three most widely distributed
SNFPA forest types to examine the trend in percent high severity and high- severity fire area for all wildfires ≥80 ha that occurred during
the 1984 to 2010 period. Time-series regression modeling indicates that the percentage of total high severity per year for a combination of yellow pine (ponderosa pine [ Pinus ponderosa Lawson & C. Lawson] or Jeffrey pine [ P. jeffreyi Balf.]) and mixed-conifer forests
increased significantly over the 27-year period. The annual area of high-severity fire also increased significantly in yellow
pine-mixed-conifer forests. The percentage of high severity in fires ≥400 ha burning in yellow pine-mixed-conifer forests was significantly
higher than in fires <400 ha. Additionally, the number of fires ≥400 ha significantly increased over the 1950 to 2010 period. There were
no significant trends in red fir ( Abies magnifica A. Murray bis) forests. These results confirm and expand our earlier published
results for a shorter 21-year period.


Miller, Jay D., and Safford, Hugh. 2012. “Trends in Wildfire Severity: 1984 to 2010 in the Sierra Nevada, Modoc Plateau, and Southern Cascades, California, USA.” Fire Ecology 8 (3): 41–57. doi:10.4996/fireecology.0803041.