In heavily altered landscapes, where vegetation is not natural and where people are the main source of ignitions, relationships between fire occurrence and climate conditions may be unclear. The objective of this study was to evaluate to what extent territories with similar Potential Natural Vegetation (PNV) in peninsular Spain differ in their forest fire characteristics. From 1974 to 1994, more than 174000 fires occurred. We used (1) the Spanish data base of forest fires, (2) a PNV map and (3) a land use map. Separate fire characteristics, based either on the number of fires occurred or the area burned, were obtained for each of the ca. 5000 grid-cells (10 km × 10 km) into which peninsular Spain is divided in the UTM projection. Also, meteorological conditions at the time of fire ignition, cause of ignition and present forest cover were referred to the same grid-cells as external factors potentially determinant of fire occurrence. The relationships between fire regime characteristics and PNV units were explored with Principal Components Analysis (PCA). The role of the three sets of external factors in the fire characteristics was evaluated with Redundancy Analysis (RDA). Groups of similar PNV types were clearly segregated, suggesting a gradient of fire characteristics. Higher fire incidence (higher frequencies and spatial incidence of fires, but lower proportions of grid-cells affected by large fires) was associated with Atlantic, warm territories with deciduous forests as PNV. Intermediate fire frequency and rotation period, but with a higher relative incidence of medium and large fires occurred in Mediterranean PNV units, dominated by sclerophyllous oak forests. Low fire frequency and long rotation periods, with strong seasonal and yearly variability occurred for PNV units in the cold uplands (Fagus, Pinus, Abies, Juniperus) or in the semi-arid, shrubby PNV units. The cause of ignition best explained the patterns of forest fire characteristics, followed by weather conditions.
Our results indicate that, even in human influenced regions, climate and soil conditions exert control on the resulting forest fire characteristics, as indicated by the high segregation of the PNV types. However, the role of man was crucial in shifting the patterns of fire incidence. This was so that highest fire incidence occurred in regions that, otherwise, would be expected to have a much lower one, thus posing a serious threat for such areas. PNV maps, by providing a phytogeographical framework for characterizing forest fires, could be valuable tools for applying research results to forest fire management policies, taking properly into account the underlying determinant factors.
Abbreviations: PCA = Principal Components Analysis; PNV = Potential Natural Vegetation; RDA = Redundancy Analysis.