The climate space of fire regimes in north-western North America

TitleThe climate space of fire regimes in north-western North America
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsWhitman, E
Secondary AuthorsBatllori, E
Tertiary AuthorsParisien, M-A
Subsidiary AuthorsMiller, C, Coop, JD, Krawchuk, MA, Chong, GW, Haire, SL
JournalJournal of Biogeography
VolumeOnline early
Keywordsburn severity, climate change and fire, technical reports and journal articles


Studies of fire activity along environmental gradients have been undertaken, but the results of such studies have yet to be integrated with fire-regime analysis. We characterize fire-regime components along climate gradients and a gradient of human influence.


We focus on a climatically diverse region of north-western North America extending from northern British Columbia, Canada, to northern Utah and Colorado, USA.


We used a multivariate framework to collapse 12 climatic variables into two major climate gradients and binned them into 73 discrete climate domains. We examined variation in fire-regime components (frequency, size, severity, seasonality and cause) across climate domains. Fire-regime attributes were compiled from existing databases and Landsat imagery for 1897 large fires. Relationships among the fire-regime components, climate gradients and human influence were examined through bivariate regressions. The unique contribution of human influence was also assessed.


A primary climate gradient of temperature and summer precipitation and a secondary gradient of continentality and winter precipitation in the study area were identified. Fire occupied a distinct central region of such climate space, within which fire-regime components varied considerably. We identified significant interrelations between fire-regime components of fire size, frequency, burn severity and cause. The influence of humans was apparent in patterns of burn severity and ignition cause.

Main conclusions

Wildfire activity is highest where thermal and moisture gradients converge to promote fuel production, flammability and ignitions. Having linked fire-regime components to large-scale climate gradients, we show that fire regimes – like the climate that controls them – are a part of a continuum, expanding on models of varying constraints on fire activity. The observed relationships between fire-regime components, together with the distinct role of climatic and human influences, generate variation in biotic communities. Thus, future changes to climate may lead to ecological changes through altered fire regimes.