An aridity threshold model of fire sizes and annual area burned in extensively forested ecoregions of the western USA

TitleAn aridity threshold model of fire sizes and annual area burned in extensively forested ecoregions of the western USA
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2023
AuthorsHenne, PD, Hawbaker, TJ
JournalEcological Modelling
Date Published03/2023
KeywordsAridity thresholds, climate change, Extreme events, fire ecology, fire-season aridity, fuel structure, Global climate models, Low complexity model, Rocky Mountains, technical reports and journal articles, Water deficit, Western USA

Wildfire occurrence varies among regions and through time due to the long-term impacts of climate on fuel structure and short-term impacts on fuel flammability. Identifying the climatic conditions that trigger extensive fire years at regional scales can enable development of area burned models that are both spatially and temporally robust, which is crucial for understanding the impacts of past and future climate change. We identified region-specific thresholds in fire-season aridity that distinguish years with limited, moderate, and extensive area burned for 11 extensively forested ecoregions in the western United States. We developed a new area burned model using these relationships and demonstrate its application in the Southern Rocky Mountains using climate projections from five global climate models (GCMs) that bracket the range of projected changes in aridity. We used the aridity thresholds to classify each simulation year as having limited, moderate, or extensive area burned and defined fire-size distributions from historical fire records for these categories. We simulated individual fires from a regression relating fire season aridity to the annual number of fires and drew fire sizes from the corresponding fire-size distributions. We project dramatic increases in area burned after 2020 under most GCMs and after 2060 with all GCMs as the frequency of extensive fire years increases. Our adaptable model can readily incorporate new observations (e.g., extreme fire years) to directly address the non-stationarity of fire-climate relationships as climatic conditions diverge from past observations. Our aridity threshold fire model provides a simple yet spatially robust approach to project regional changes in area burned with broad applicability to ecosystem and vegetation simulation models.