Evidence for scale‐dependent topographic controls on wildfire spread

TitleEvidence for scale‐dependent topographic controls on wildfire spread
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsPovak, NA
Secondary AuthorsHessburg, PF
Tertiary AuthorsSalter, RB
Start Pagee02443
Keywordsbiophysical, complexity, disturbance, fire, landscape ecology, Scaling, technical reports and journal articles

Wildfire ecosystems are thought to be self‐regulated through pattern–process interactions between ignition frequency and location, and patterns of burned and recovering vegetation. Yet, recent increases in the frequency of large wildfires call into question the application of self‐organization theory to landscape resilience. Topography represents a stable bottom‐up template upon which fire interacts as both a physical and an ecological process. However, it is unclear how topographic control changes geographically and across spatial scales. We analyzed fire perimeter and topography data from 16 Bailey ecoregions across the State of California to identify spatial correspondence between ecoregional fire event and topographic patch size distributions. We found both sets of distributions followed a power‐law form and were statistically similar across several orders of magnitude, for most ecoregions. As a direct test of topographic controls on fire event perimeters, we used a paired t‐test across ~11,000 fires to identify differences in topographic attributes at fire boundaries versus fire interiors. Statistical significance was determined using 500 iterations of a neutral landscape model. Level of topographic control varied significantly by ecoregion and across topographic features. For example, north–south aspect breaks, valley bottoms, and roads showed a consistently high degree of spatial control on wildfire perimeters. Topographic controls were most pronounced in mountainous ecoregions and were least influential in arid regions. Ridgetops provided a low‐level control across all ecoregions. Spatial control was strongest for small (100–102 ha) to medium (103–104 ha) fire sizes, suggesting that controls were scale‐dependent rather than scale‐invariant. Roads were the dominant control across all ecoregions; however, removing roads from the analyses had no significant effect on the overall role of topography on wildfire extinguishment in this analysis. This result suggested that certain topographic settings show strong spatial control on fire growth, despite the presence of roads. Our results support the observation that both bottom‐up and top‐down factors constrain fire sizes and that there are likely scaling regions within fire size distributions wherein the dominance of these spatial controls varies. Human influences on fire spread may either diminish or enhance the role of some bottom‐up and top‐down factors, adding further complexity.