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

Is fire severity increasing in the Sierra Nevada, California, USA?

Chad T. Hanson A C and Dennis C. Odion B

A Earth Island Institute, 2150 Allston Way, Suite #460, Berkeley, CA 94704, USA.

B Earth Research Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara, 93106 and Environmental Studies Department, Southern Oregon University, Ashland, OR 97520, USA.

C Corresponding author. Email: cthanson1@gmail.com

International Journal of Wildland Fire 23(1) 1-8 http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WF13016
Submitted: 1 February 2013  Accepted: 30 May 2013   Published: 10 September 2013

Abstract

Research in the Sierra Nevada range of California, USA, has provided conflicting results about current trends of high-severity fire. Previous studies have used only a portion of available fire severity data, or considered only a portion of the Sierra Nevada. Our goal was to investigate whether a trend in fire severity is occurring in Sierra Nevada conifer forests currently, using satellite imagery. We analysed all available fire severity data, 1984–2010, over the whole ecoregion and found no trend in proportion, area or patch size of high-severity fire. The rate of high-severity fire has been lower since 1984 than the estimated historical rate. Responses of fire behaviour to climate change and fire suppression may be more complex than assumed. A better understanding of spatiotemporal patterns in fire regimes is needed to predict future fire regimes and their biological effects. Mechanisms underlying the lack of an expected climate- and time since fire-related trend in high-severity fire need to be identified to help calibrate projections of future fire. The effects of climate change on high-severity fire extent may remain small compared with fire suppression. Management could shift from a focus on reducing extent or severity of fire in wildlands to protecting human communities from fire.

Additional keywords: conifer forests, early-successional habitat, fire-dependent biota, high-severity fire.


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