Historical reconstructions of California wildfires vary by data source

International Journal of Wildland Fire
By:  and 



Historical data are essential for understanding how fire activity responds to different drivers. It is important that the source of data is commensurate with the spatial and temporal scale of the question addressed, but fire history databases are derived from different sources with different restrictions. In California, a frequently used fire history dataset is the State of California Fire and Resource Assessment Program (FRAP) fire history database, which circumscribes fire perimeters at a relatively fine scale. It includes large fires on both state and federal lands but only covers fires that were mapped or had other spatially explicit data. A different database is the state and federal governments’ annual reports of all fires. They are more complete than the FRAP database but are only spatially explicit to the level of county (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection – Cal Fire) or forest (United States Forest Service – USFS). We found substantial differences between the FRAP database and the annual summaries, with the largest and most consistent discrepancy being in fire frequency. The FRAP database missed the majority of fires and is thus a poor indicator of fire frequency or indicators of ignition sources. The FRAP database is also deficient in area burned, especially before 1950. Even in contemporary records, the huge number of smaller fires not included in the FRAP database account for substantial cumulative differences in area burned. Wildfires in California account for nearly half of the western United States fire suppression budget. Therefore, the conclusions about data discrepancies and the implications for fire research are of broad importance.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Historical reconstructions of California wildfires vary by data source
Series title International Journal of Wildland Fire
DOI 10.1071/WF16050
Volume 25
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher CSIRO Publishing
Contributing office(s) Western Ecological Research Center
Description 7 p.
First page 1221
Last page 1227
Country United States
State California
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