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Wildfire probability estimated from recent climate and fine fuels across the big sagebrush region

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Wildfire is a major proximate cause of historical and ongoing losses of intact big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt.) plant communities and declines in sagebrush obligate wildlife species. In recent decades, fire return intervals have shortened and area burned has increased in some areas, and habitat degradation is occurring where post-fire re-establishment of sagebrush is hindered by invasive annual grasses. In coming decades, the changing climate may accelerate these wildfire and invasive feedbacks, although projecting future wildfire dynamics requires a better understanding of long-term wildfire drivers across the big sagebrush region. Here, we integrated wildfire observations with climate and vegetation data to derive a statistical model for the entire big sagebrush region that represents how annual wildfire probability is influenced by climate and fine fuel characteristics.


Wildfire frequency varied significantly across the sagebrush region, and our statistical model represented much of that variation. Biomass of annual and perennial grasses and forbs, which we used as proxies for fine fuels, influenced wildfire probability. Wildfire probability was highest in areas with high annual forb and grass biomass, which is consistent with the well-documented phenomenon of increased wildfire following annual grass invasion. The effects of annuals on wildfire probability were strongest in places with dry summers. Wildfire probability varied with the biomass of perennial grasses and forbs and was highest at intermediate biomass levels. Climate, which varies substantially across the sagebrush region, was also predictive of wildfire probability, and predictions were highest in areas with a low proportion of precipitation received in summer, intermediate precipitation, and high temperature.


We developed a carefully validated model that contains relatively simple and biologically plausible relationships, with the goal of adequate performance under novel conditions so that useful projections of average annual wildfire probability can be made given general changes in conditions. Previous studies on the impacts of vegetation and climate on wildfire probability in sagebrush ecosystems have generally used more complex machine learning approaches and have usually been applicable to only portions of the sagebrush region. Therefore, our model complements existing work and forms an additional tool for understanding future wildfire and ecological dynamics across the sagebrush region.

Martin C. Holdrege, Daniel R. Schlaepfer, Kyle A. Palmquist, Michele Crist, Kevin E. Doherty, William K. Lauenroth, Thomas E. Remington, Karin Riley, Karen C. Short, John C. Tull, Lief A. Wiechman & John B. Bradford

Holdrege, M.C., Schlaepfer, D.R., Palmquist, K.A. et al. Wildfire probability estimated from recent climate and fine fuels across the big sagebrush region. fire ecol 20, 22 (2024).

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