Jeremy S. Littell, David L. Peterson, Karen L. Riley, Yongqiang Liu, Charles H. Luce
Year Published:
James M. Vose, James S. Clark, Charles H. Luce, Toral Patel-Weynand

Cataloging Information

Fire Effects
Ecological - First Order
Fire Intensity / Burn Severity
Ecological - Second Order
Fire & Climate
Fire Regime

NRFSN number: 14525
Record updated: May 10, 2018

Historical and presettlement relationships between drought and wildfire have been well documented in much of North America, with forest fire occurrence and area burned clearly increasing in response to drought. Drought interacts with other controls (forest productivity, topography, and fire weather) to affect fire intensity and severity. Fire regime characteristics (area, frequency, severity) are the product of many individual fires, so both weather and climate - including short- and long-term droughts - are important. It is worth noting, however, that the factors controlling fire events and fire regimes are complex and extend beyond drought and climate alone, and so fire regimes and wildfires are affected by other variables from local-to-global scales. Fire history evidence from diverse climate regimes and forest ecosystems suggests that North American forest fire regimes were moderately to strongly controlled by climate prior to Euro-American settlement and subsequent fire exclusion and fire suppression (Flatley and others 2013, Hessl and others 2004, Heyerdahl and others 2002, Heyerdahl and others 2008, Swetnam 1990, Swetnam and Betancourt 1998, Weisberg and Swanson 2003). These presettlement fire histories indicate a relationship between low precipitation anomalies and widespread fire activity, especially in the Western United States. This is consistent with a regional depletion of soil and atmospheric moisture, which leads to low moisture in foliage and surface fuels and ultimately to the potential for widespread fire (Swetnam and Betancourt 1998). Some fire histories in the American Southwest also demonstrate a lagged relationship with above-average antecedent precipitation (Swetnam and Betancourt 1998) and/or cooler temperatures (Veblen and others 2000) in the year(s) prior to years of widespread fire. Most of these records are derived from fire-scarred trees that survived fire events and thus are primarily indicative of low- or mixedseverity fire regimes, although some work has focused also on evidence from high-severity fire regimes (Heyerdahl and others 2002).


Littell, Jeremy S.; Peterson, David L.; Riley, Karin L.; Liu, Yongqiang; Luce, Charles H. 2016. Fire and drought [Chapter 7]. In: Vose, James M.; Clark, James S.; Luce, Charles H.; Patel-Weynard, Toral, eds. Effects of drought on forests and rangelands in the United States: A comprehensive science synthesis. Gen. Tech. Rep. WO-93b. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington Office. p. 135-154.

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