Drought and Fire in the Western USA: Is Climate Attribution Enough?


Purpose of Review

I sought to review the contributions of recent literature and prior foundational papers to our understanding of drought and fire. In this review, I summarize recent literature on drought and fire in the western USA and discuss research directions that may increase the utility of that body of work for twenty-first century application. I then describe gaps in the synthetic knowledge of drought-driven fire in managed ecosystems and use concepts from use-inspired research to describe potentially useful extensions of current work.

Recent Findings

Fire responses to climate, and specifically various kinds of drought, are clear, but vary widely with fuel responses to surplus water and drought at different timescales. Ecological and physical factors interact with human management and ignitions to create fire regime and landscape trajectories that challenge prediction.


The mechanisms by which the climate system affects regional droughts and how they translate to fire in the western USA need more attention to accelerate both forecasting and adaptation. However, projections of future fire activity under climate change will require integrated advances on both fronts to achieve decision-relevant modeling. Concepts from transdisciplinary research and coupled human-natural systems can help frame strategic work to address fire in a changing world.

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Fig. 1


Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major Importance

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I thank three anonymous reviewers for constructive comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript.


This work was funded by the Department of Interior Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center. 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 Jeremy S. Littell.

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This article is part of the Topical Collection on Climate Change and Drought

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Littell, J.S. Drought and Fire in the Western USA: Is Climate Attribution Enough?. Curr Clim Change Rep 4, 396–406 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40641-018-0109-y

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  • Fire
  • Wildfire
  • Drought
  • Climatic water deficit
  • Water balance deficit
  • Resilience
  • Climate change