Changes in fire behavior caused by fire exclusion and fuel build-up vary with topography in California montane forests, USA

TitleChanges in fire behavior caused by fire exclusion and fuel build-up vary with topography in California montane forests, USA
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2022
AuthorsAirey-Lauvaux, C, Pierce, AD, Skinner, CN, Taylor, AH
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
Date Published02/2022
KeywordsFire simulation, Forest change, Landscape fire management, Pre-settlement fuels, technical reports and journal articles, Threshold behavior, topography

Wildfire sizes and proportions burned with high severity effects are increasing in seasonally dry forests, especially in the western USA. A critical need in efforts to restore or maintain these forest ecosystems is to determine where fuel build-up caused by fire exclusion reaches thresholds that compromise resilience to fire. Empirical studies identifying drivers of fire severity patterns in actual wildfires can be confounded by co-variation of vegetation and topography and the stochastic effects of weather and rarely consider long-term changes in fuel caused by fire exclusion. To overcome these limitations, we used a spatially explicit fire model (FlamMap) to compare potential fire behavior by topographic position in Lassen Volcanic National Park (LAVO), California, a large (43,000 ha), mountainous, unlogged landscape with extensive historical and contemporary fuels data. Fuel loads were uniformly distributed and incrementally increased across the landscape, meaning variation in fire behavior within each simulation was due to topography and among simulations, to fuels. We analyzed changes in fire line intensity (FLI) and crown fire potential as surface and canopy fuels increased from historical to contemporary levels and with percentile and actual wildfire weather conditions. Sensitivity to the influence of fuel build-up on fire behavior varied by topographic position. Steep slopes and ridges were most sensitive. At lower surface fuel loads, under pre-exclusion and contemporary canopy conditions, fire behavior was comparable and remained surface-type. As fuels increased, FLI and passive crown fire increased on steep slopes and ridgetops but remained largely unchanged on gentle slopes. Topographic variability in fire behavior was greatest with intermediate fuels. At higher surface fuel loads, under contemporary canopy fuels, passive crown fire dominated all topographic positions. With LAVO’s current surface fuels, the area with potential for passive crown fire during actual fire weather increased from 6% pre-exclusion to 34% due to canopy fuel build-up. For topographically diverse landscapes, the results highlight where contemporary fire characteristics are most likely to deviate from historical patterns and may help managers prioritize locations for prescribed burning and managed wildfire to increase fire resilience in fuel rich landscapes.