Human presence diminishes the importance of climate in driving fire activity across the United States

PNAS
By: , and 

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Abstract

Growing human and ecological costs due to increasing wildfire are an urgent concern in policy and management, particularly given projections of worsening fire conditions under climate change. Thus, understanding the relationship between climatic variation and fire activity is a critically important scientific question. Different factors limit fire behavior in different places and times, but most fire-climate analyses are conducted across broad spatial extents that mask geographical variation. This could result in overly broad or inappropriate management and policy decisions that neglect to account for regionally specific or other important factors driving fire activity. We developed statistical models relating seasonal temperature and precipitation variables to historical annual fire activity for 37 different regions across the continental United States and asked whether and how fire-climate relationships vary geographically, and why climate is more important in some regions than in others. Climatic variation played a significant role in explaining annual fire activity in some regions, but the relative importance of seasonal temperature or precipitation, in addition to the overall importance of climate, varied substantially depending on geographical context. Human presence was the primary reason that climate explained less fire activity in some regions than in others. That is, where human presence was more prominent, climate was less important. This means that humans may not only influence fire regimes but their presence can actually override, or swamp out, the effect of climate. Thus, geographical context as well as human influence should be considered alongside climate in national wildfire policy and management.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Human presence diminishes the importance of climate in driving fire activity across the United States
Series title PNAS
DOI 10.1073/pnas.1713885114
Volume 114
Issue 52
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher PNAS
Contributing office(s) Western Ecological Research Center
Description 6 p.
First page 13750
Last page 13755
Country United States