International Journal of Wildland Fire International Journal of Wildland Fire Society
Journal of the International Association of Wildland Fire
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Long-term fire history from alluvial fan sediments: the role of drought and climate variability, and implications for management of Rocky Mountain forests

Jennifer Pierce A C and Grant Meyer B
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Boise State University Department of Geosciences, 1910 University Drive, Boise, ID 83725-1535, USA.

B University of New Mexico Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Albuquerque, NM 87131, USA.

C Corresponding author. Email: jenpierce@boisestate.edu

International Journal of Wildland Fire 17(1) 84-95 https://doi.org/10.1071/WF07027
Submitted: 14 February 2007  Accepted: 14 June 2007   Published: 15 February 2008

Abstract

Alluvial fan deposits are widespread and preserve millennial-length records of fire. We used these records to examine changes in fire regimes over the last 2000 years in Yellowstone National Park mixed-conifer forests and drier central Idaho ponderosa pine forests. In Idaho, frequent, small, fire-related erosional events occurred within the Little Ice Age (~1450–1800 AD), when greater effective moisture probably promoted grass growth and low-severity fires. This regime is consistent with tree-ring records showing generally wetter conditions and frequent fires before European settlement. At higher elevations in Yellowstone, cool conditions limited overall fire activity. Conversely, both Idaho and Yellowstone experienced a peak in fire-related debris flows between ~950 and 1150 AD. During this generally warmer time, severe multidecadal droughts were interspersed with unusually wet intervals that probably increased forest densities, producing stand-replacing fires. Thus, severe fires are clearly within the natural range of variability in Idaho ponderosa pine forests over longer timescales. Historical records indicate that large burn areas in Idaho correspond with drought intervals within the past 100 years and that burn area has increased markedly since ~1985. Recent stand-replacing fires in ponderosa pine forests are likely related to both changes in management and increasing temperatures and drought severity during the 20th century.

Additional keywords: debris flows, Idaho, ponderosa pine, Yellowstone.


Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Tim Jull, Spencer Wood, and Steve Wells for collaboration, and Katharine North, Lydia Rockwell, Sarah Caldwell, Tim Lite, Wallace Pierce-Andersen, and Molly Watt for aid in Idaho field work. Kari Grover-Wier, Carey Crist, and Paula Dillon of the US Forest Service provided valuable logistical support and help with burn area data. Thanks to Ed Cook and his colleagues, and the NOAA NCDC program for making drought data accessible and available online. The present work was supported by National Science Foundation grants EAR 9005058 and EAR 0000905 to Meyer, and EAR 9730699 in support of dating at the NSF–Arizona AMS Laboratory.


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