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Quantitative Evidence for Increasing Forest Fire Severity in the Sierra Nevada and Southern Cascade Mountains, California and Nevada, USA

Abstract

Recent research has concluded that forest wildfires in the western United States are becoming larger and more frequent. A more significant question may be whether the ecosystem impacts of wildfire are also increasing. We show that a large area (approximately 120000 km2) of California and western Nevada experienced a notable increase in the extent of forest stand-replacing (“high severity”) fire between 1984 and 2006. High severity forest fire is closely linked to forest fragmentation, wildlife habitat availability, erosion rates and sedimentation, post-fire seedling recruitment, carbon sequestration, and various other ecosystem properties and processes. Mean and maximum fire size, and the area burned annually have also all risen substantially since the beginning of the 1980s, and are now at or above values from the decades preceding the 1940s, when fire suppression became national policy. These trends are occurring in concert with a regional rise in temperature and a long-term increase in annual precipitation. A close examination of the climate–fire relationship and other evidence suggests that forest fuels are no longer limiting fire occurrence and behavior across much of the study region. We conclude that current trends in forest fire severity necessitate a re-examination of the implications of all-out fire suppression and its ecological impacts.

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Acknowledgments

This study was funded by the USDA-Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region, Fire and Aviation Management staff. Jim Baldwin, Brandon Collins, Dave Schmidt, Carl Skinner, Scott Stephens, and Neil Willets provided early reviews. We also thank two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments. Carl Key supplied CBI plot data from Yosemite National Park for comparison of classification accuracies.

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Correspondence to H. D. Safford.

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Author Contributions: Jay Miller designed the study, performed research, analyzed data, and wrote the article. Hugh Safford performed research, analyzed data, and wrote the article. Michael Crimmins performed research and analyzed data. Andi Thode designed the study and performed research.

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Miller, J.D., Safford, H.D., Crimmins, M. et al. Quantitative Evidence for Increasing Forest Fire Severity in the Sierra Nevada and Southern Cascade Mountains, California and Nevada, USA. Ecosystems 12, 16–32 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-008-9201-9

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Keywords

  • California
  • fire ecology
  • fire severity
  • burn severity
  • Sierra Nevada
  • Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment
  • relative differenced Normalized Burn Ratio