Fire & Climate
Recent extreme wildfire seasons in several regions have been associated with exceptionally hot, dry conditions, made more probable by climate change. Much research has focused on extreme fire weather and its drivers, but natural wildfire regimes – and their interactions with human activities – are far from being comprehensively understood. There is a lack of clarity about the 'causes' of wildfire, and about how ecosystems could be managed for the co-existence of wildfire and people. We present evidence supporting an ecosystem-centred framework for improved understanding and modelling of wildfire. Wildfire has a long geological history and is a pervasive natural process in contemporary plant communities. In some biomes, wildfire would be more frequent without human settlement; in others they would be unchanged or less frequent. A world without fire would have greater forest cover, especially in present-day savannas. Many species would be missing, because fire regimes have co-evolved with plant traits that resist, adapt to or promote wildfire. Certain plant traits are favoured by different fire frequencies, and may be missing in ecosystems that are normally fire-free. For example, post-fire resprouting is more common among woody plants in high-frequency fire regimes than where fire is infrequent. The impact of habitat fragmentation on wildfire crucially depends on whether the ecosystem is fire-adapted. In normally fire-free ecosystems, fragmentation facilitates wildfire starts and is detrimental to biodiversity. In fire-adapted ecosystems, fragmentation inhibits fires from spreading and fire suppression is detrimental to biodiversity. This interpretation explains observed, counterintuitive patterns of spatial correlation between wildfire and potential ignition sources. Lightning correlates positively with burnt area only in open ecosystems with frequent fire. Human population correlates positively with burnt area only in densely forested regions. Models for vegetation-fire interactions must be informed by insights from fire ecology to make credible future projections in a changing climate.