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Classifying large wildfires in the United States by land cover

Author(s): Brice B. Hanberry
Year Published: 2020

Fire is an ecological process that also has socio-economic effects. To learn more about fire occurrence, I examined relationships between land classes and about 12,000 spatially delineated large wildfires (defined here as uncontrolled fires _200 ha, although definitions vary) during 1999 to 2017 in the conterminous United States. Using random forests, extreme gradient boosting, and c5.0 classifiers, I modeled all fires, first years (1999 to 2002), last years (2014 to 2017), the eastern, central, and western United States and seven ecoregions. The three classifiers performed well (true positive rates 0.82 to 0.94) at modeling all fires and fires by year, region, and ecoregion. The random forests classifier did not predict to other time intervals or regions as well as other classifiers and models were not constant in time and space. For example, the eastern region overpredicted fires in the western region and models for the western region underpredicted fires in the eastern region. Overall, greater abundance of herbaceous grasslands, or herbaceous wetlands in the eastern region, and evergreen forest and low abundance of crops and pasture characterized most large fires, even with regional differences. The 14 states in the northeastern United States with no or few large fires contained limited herbaceous area and abundant crops or developed lands. Herbaceous vegetation was the most important variable for fire occurrences in the western region. Lack of crops was most important for fires in the central region and a lack of pasture, crops, and developed open space was most important for fires in the eastern region. A combination of wildlands vegetation was most influential for most ecoregions, although herbaceous vegetation alone and lack of pasture, crops, and developed open space also were influential. Despite departure from historical fire regimes, these models demonstrated that herbaceous vegetation remains necessary for fires and that evergreen forests in particular are fire-prone, while reduction of vegetation surrounding housing developments will help provide a buffer to reduce large fires.

Citation: Hanberry, Brice B. 2020. Classifying large wildfires in the United States by land cover. Remote Sensing. 12: 2966.
Topic(s): Wildland Urban Interface
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 22065
Record updated: Oct 29, 2020