Fire regime: history and definition of a key concept in disturbance ecology


“Fire regime” has become, in recent decades, a key concept in many scientific domains. In spite of its wide spread use, the concept still lacks a clear and wide established definition. Many believe that it was first discussed in a famous report on national park management in the United States, and that it may be simply defined as a selection of a few measurable parameters that summarize the fire occurrence patterns in an area. This view has been uncritically perpetuated in the scientific community in the last decades. In this paper we attempt a historical reconstruction of the origin, the evolution and the current meaning of “fire regime” as a concept. Its roots go back to the 19th century in France and to the first half of the 20th century in French African colonies. The “fire regime” concept took time to evolve and pass from French into English usage and thus to the whole scientific community. This coincided with a paradigm shift in the early 1960s in the United States, where a favourable cultural, social and scientific climate led to the natural role of fires as a major disturbance in ecosystem dynamics becoming fully acknowledged. Today the concept of “fire regime” refers to a collection of several fire-related parameters that may be organized, assembled and used in different ways according to the needs of the users. A structure for the most relevant categories of parameters is proposed, aiming to contribute to a unified concept of “fire regime” that can reconcile the physical nature of fire with the socio-ecological context within which it occurs.

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  1. 1.

    As a general rule we use «italic» for French, "italic" for English, and italic for Latin. Italic is also used for often mentioned English terms like fire regime.

  2. 2.

    Pyne (1997) studied in-depth the history of "pastoral burning", i.e. the use of fire to clear land for grazing.

  3. 3.

    In a previous publication discussing the fire problem in Madagascar in-depth (Jumelle and de la Bâthie 1908) he did not use this expression, which is why we assume that he either learned or invented it between 1908 and 1912.

  4. 4.

    See Faust (1955) for Bray’s biography and Maunder (1954) for Schenck’s biography.

  5. 5.

    Hearle was not the only one. Others such as Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the United States Forest Service, studied forestry in Nancy in 1889 and 1890. Pinchot was in many respects the predecessor of Carl Alwin Schenck who was one of the first using the FR expression in the USA.

  6. 6.

    The peak value for the percentage of FR in titles in the 1970s cannot be considered really significant as it occurred in only 2 out of 39 articles.

  7. 7.

    See "the simplest level of abstraction" in Frost (1984, p. 305).


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This research is part of the Fire Paradox project ( We gratefully acknowledge the research funding we received from the European Commission’s Sixth Framework Program. Our heart-felt thanks go to Silvia Dingwall Stucki for revising the English text.

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Krebs, P., Pezzatti, G.B., Mazzoleni, S. et al. Fire regime: history and definition of a key concept in disturbance ecology. Theory Biosci. 129, 53–69 (2010).

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  • Fire ecology
  • Fire history
  • History of science
  • Evolution of ideas
  • French African colonies
  • Cross-linguistic influence
  • Leopold report