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Fire weather and likelihood: characterizing climate space for fire occurrence and extent in Puerto Rico

Abstract

Assessing the relationships between weather patterns and the likelihood of fire occurrence in the Caribbean has not been as central to climate change research as in temperate regions, due in part to the smaller extent of individual fires. However, the cumulative effect of small frequent fires can shape large landscapes, and fire-prone ecosystems are abundant in the tropics. Climate change has the potential to greatly expand fire-prone areas to moist and wet tropical forests and grasslands that have been traditionally less fire-prone, and to extend and create more temporal variability in fire seasons. We built a machine learning random forest classifier to analyze the relationship between climatic, socio-economic, and fire history data with fire occurrence and extent for the years 2003–2011 in Puerto Rico, nearly 35,000 fires. Using classifiers based on climate measurements alone, we found that the climate space is a reliable associate, if not a predictor, of fire occurrence and extent in this environment. We found a strong relationship between occurrence and a change from average weather conditions, and between extent and severity of weather conditions. The probability that the random forest classifiers will rank a positive example higher than a negative example is 0.8–0.89 in the classifiers for deciding if a fire occurs, and 0.64–0.69 in the classifiers for deciding if the fire is greater than 5 ha. Future climate projections of extreme seasons indicate increased potential for fire occurrence with larger extents.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Joel Figueroa and Iván Cruz from the Fire Department of Puerto Rico and Luis Rosa, Gary Votaw and Shawn Rossi from the National Weather Program, NOAA/National Weather Service, San Juan for providing data on fire occurrence. Eric Harmsen provided the initial processing of the daily wind speed data. This research was supported by grant DEB 1546686 from US National Science Foundation to the Institute for Tropical Ecosystem Studies, University of Puerto Rico, and to the International Institute of Tropical Forestry (IITF) USDA Forest Service, as part of the Luquillo Long-Term Ecological Research Program. The US Forest Service (Department of Agriculture) Research Unit, the Luquillo Critical Zone Observatory (EAR-1331841), and the University of Puerto Rico gave additional support. We thank Dr. Ariel E. Lugo for providing useful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. All research at the International Institute of Tropical Forestry is done in collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico.

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Correspondence to Ashley E. Van Beusekom.

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This article is part of a Special Issue on ‘Vulnerability Assessment of US Agriculture and Forests developed by the USDA Climate Hubs’ edited by Jerry L. Hatfield, Rachel Steele, Beatrice van Horne, and William Gould.

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Van Beusekom, A., Gould, W.A., Monmany, A.C. et al. Fire weather and likelihood: characterizing climate space for fire occurrence and extent in Puerto Rico. Climatic Change 146, 117–131 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-2045-6

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-2045-6