Drought, multi-seasonal climate, and wildfire in northern New Mexico


Wildfire is increasingly a concern in the USA, where 10 million acres burned in 2015. Climate is a primary driver of wildfire, and understanding fire-climate relationships is crucial for informing fire management and modeling the effects of climate change on fire. In the southwestern USA, fire-climate relationships have been informed by tree-ring data that extend centuries prior to the onset of fire exclusion in the late 1800s. Variability in cool-season precipitation has been linked to fire occurrence, but the effects of the summer North American monsoon on fire are less understood, as are the effects of climate on fire seasonality. We use a new set of reconstructions for cool-season (October–April) and monsoon-season (July–August) moisture conditions along with a large new fire scar dataset to examine relationships between multi-seasonal climate variability, fire extent, and fire seasonality in the Jemez Mountains, New Mexico (1599–1899 CE). Results suggest that large fires burning in all seasons are strongly influenced by the current year cool-season moisture, but fires burning mid-summer to fall are also influenced by monsoon moisture. Wet conditions several years prior to the fire year during the cool season, and to a lesser extent during the monsoon season, are also important for spring through late-summer fires. Persistent cool-season drought longer than 3 years may inhibit fires due to the lack of moisture to replenish surface fuels. This suggests that fuels may become increasingly limiting for fire occurrence in semi-arid regions that are projected to become drier with climate change.

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This work was supported by the National Science Foundation Macrosystems award number 1065790. K. Miller, B. Olimpio, L.B. Johnson, C.H. Guiterman, E. Bigio, D.A. Falk, C.H. Baisan, and S.B. Malevich provided comments and assistance with data collection and data management. G. Meyer and two anonymous reviewers provided useful comments. We thank the researchers who developed the fire history data used in this study, particularly D.A. Falk, C.H. Baisan, and C.D. Allen. This work is a contribution of the Western Mountain Initiative, a USGS global change research project. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

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Correspondence to E. Q. Margolis.

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Margolis, E.Q., Woodhouse, C.A. & Swetnam, T.W. Drought, multi-seasonal climate, and wildfire in northern New Mexico. Climatic Change 142, 433–446 (2017).

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  • Tree ring
  • North American monsoon
  • Fire-climate relationships
  • Fire season