Contemporary patterns of fire extent and severity in forests of the Pacific Northwest, USA (1985–2010)

TitleContemporary patterns of fire extent and severity in forests of the Pacific Northwest, USA (1985–2010)
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsReilly, MJ
Secondary AuthorsDunn, CJ
Tertiary AuthorsMeigs, GW
Subsidiary AuthorsSpies, TA, Kennedy, RE, Bailey, JD, Briggs, K
Start Pagee01695
Keywordsfire effects and fire ecology, fire history, technical reports and journal articles

Fire is an important disturbance in many forest landscapes, but there is heightened concern regarding recent wildfire activity in western North America. Several regional-scale studies focus on high-severity fire, but a comprehensive examination at all levels of burn severity (i.e., low, moderate, and high) is needed to inform our understanding of the ecological effects of contemporary fires and how they vary among vegetation zones at sub-regional scales. We integrate Landsat time series data with field measurements of tree mortality to map burn severity in forests of the Pacific Northwest, USA, from 1985 to 2010. We then examine temporal trends in fire extent and spatial patterns of burn severity in relation to drought and annual fire extent. Finally, we compare results among vegetation zones and with expectations based on studies of historical landscape dynamics and fire regimes. Small increases in fire extent over time were associated with drought in all vegetation zones, but fire cumulatively affected <3% of wet vegetation zones, and most dry vegetation zones experienced less fire than expectations from fire history studies. Although the proportion of fire at any level of severity did not increase over time, temporal trends toward larger patches of high-severity fire were related to drought and annual fire extent, depending on vegetation zone. In vegetation zones with historically high-severity regimes, high-severity fire accounted for a large proportion of recent fire extent (43–48%) and occurred primarily in patches ≥100 ha. In vegetation zones with historically low- and mixed-severity regimes, low (45–54%)- and moderate-severity (24–36%) fires were prevalent, but proportions of high-severity fire (23–26%), almost half of which occurred in patches ≥100 ha, were much greater than expectations from most fire history studies. Our results support concerns about large patches of high-severity fire in some dry forests but also suggest that spatial patterns of burn severity across much of the extent burned are generally consistent with current understanding of historical landscape dynamics in the region. This study highlights the importance of considering the ecological effects of fire at all levels of severity in management and policy initiatives intended to promote forest biodiversity and resilience to future fire activity.