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

The relationship of large fire occurrence with drought and fire danger indices in the western USA, 1984–2008: the role of temporal scale

Karin L. Riley A E , John T. Abatzoglou B , Isaac C. Grenfell C , Anna E. Klene D and Faith Ann Heinsch C

A University of Montana, Department of Geosciences, Missoula, MT 59812, USA.

B University of Idaho, Department of Geography, Moscow, ID 83844, USA.

C USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, 5775 W US Highway 10, Missoula, MT 59808, USA.

D University of Montana, Department of Geography, Missoula, MT 59812, USA.

E Corresponding author. Email: kriley@fs.fed.us

International Journal of Wildland Fire 22(7) 894-909 http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WF12149
Submitted: 17 December 2012  Accepted: 7 March 2013   Published: 23 July 2013

Abstract

The relationship between large fire occurrence and drought has important implications for fire prediction under current and future climates. This study’s primary objective was to evaluate correlations between drought and fire-danger-rating indices representing short- and long-term drought, to determine which had the strongest relationships with large fire occurrence at the scale of the western United States during the years 1984–2008. We combined 4–8-km gridded drought and fire-danger-rating indices with information on fires greater than 404.7 ha (1000 acres). To account for differences in indices across climate and vegetation assemblages, indices were converted to percentile conditions for each pixel. Correlations between area burned and short-term indices Energy Release Component and monthly precipitation percentile were strong (R2 = 0.92 and 0.89), as were correlations between number of fires and these indices (R2 = 0.94 and 0.93). As the period of time tabulated by indices lengthened, correlations with fire occurrence weakened: Palmer Drought Severity Index and 24-month Standardised Precipitation Index percentile showed weak correlations with area burned (R2 = 0.25 and –0.01) and number of large fires (R2 = 0.3 and 0.01). These results indicate associations between short-term indices and moisture content of dead fuels, the primary carriers of surface fire.

Additional keywords: area burned, ERC, MTBS, number of fires, PDSI, precipitation, SPI.


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