Fire Intensity / Burn Severity
Fire & Climate
Acting as a top-down control on fire activity, climate strongly affects wildfire in North American ecosystems through fuel moisture and ignitions. Departures from historical fire regimes due to climate change have significant implications for the structure and composition of boreal forests, as well as fire management and operations. In this research, we characterize the relationship between trends in climate and fire regime characteristics, for a study area predominantly in Alberta, Canada. We examined trends of fire and climate in northwestern boreal forests using time series analysis of downscaled historical annual climate, fire history (1970–2019), and fire severity (the impacts of wildfire on plants and organic biomass; 1985–2018). We represented fire severity using the relativized burn ratio (RBR) calculated from multispectral Landsat imagery. The climate of the study area has significantly warmed and dried over the past 50 years. Over the same period the annual number of large wildfires, area burned, and fire sizes in the study area significantly increased. Furthermore, the likelihood, area, and number of extreme short-interval reburns (≤15 years between fires; 1985–2019) also significantly increased. During the study period, the portion of forested unburned islands within fire perimeters significantly declined, and fire severity (RBR) increased in open conifer and mixedwood forests. These fire regime changes are significantly correlated with annual climate variability, and a path analysis supports the hypothesis that annual climate patterns have led to fire regime shifts. The increasing fire activity in this region has implications for forest ecology and habitat availability, as the disruption of the fire regime is likely to alter forest recovery. Managers may face increasing challenges to fire suppression if the observed trends of increasing hotter and drier annual climate in the study area persist, driving extreme fire activity.