Spatiotemporal patterns of unburned areas within fire perimeters in the northwestern United States from 1984 to 2014

TitleSpatiotemporal patterns of unburned areas within fire perimeters in the northwestern United States from 1984 to 2014
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsMeddens, AJH
Secondary AuthorsKolden, CA
Tertiary AuthorsLutz, JA
Subsidiary AuthorsAbatzoglou, JT, Hudak, AT
Keywordsfire effects and fire ecology, technical reports and journal articles

A warming climate, fire exclusion, and land cover changes are altering the conditions that produced historical fire regimes and facilitating increased recent wildfire activity in the northwestern United States. Understanding the impacts of changing fire regimes on forest recruitment and succession, species distributions, carbon cycling, and ecosystem services is critical, but challenging across broad spatial scales. One important and understudied aspect of fire regimes is the unburned area within fire perimeters; these areas can function as fire refugia across the landscape during and after wildfire by providing habitat and seed sources. With increasing fire activity, there is speculation that fire intensity and combustion completeness are also increasing, which we hypothesized would yield smaller unburned proportions and changes in fire refugia patterns. We sought to determine (1) whether the unburned proportion of wildfires decreased across the northwestern United States from 1984 to 2014 and (2) whether patterns of unburned patches were significantly different across ecoregions, land cover type, and land ownership. We utilized a Landsat-derived geospatial database of unburned islands within 2298 fires across the inland northwestern USA (including eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and Idaho) from 1984 to 2014. We evaluated patterns of the total unburned proportion and spatial patterns of unburned patches of the fires across different ecoregions, land cover types, and land ownership. We found that unburned area proportion exhibited no change over the three decades, suggesting that recent trends in area burned and overall severity have not affected fire refugia, important to post-fire ecosystem recovery. There were ecoregional differences in mean unburned proportion, patch area, and patch density, suggesting influences of vegetation and topography on the formation of unburned area. These foundation findings suggest that complex drivers control unburned island formation, and yield insights to locate potential important fire refugia across the inland northwest.