Question: In deciduous-dominated forest landscapes, what are the relative roles of fire weather, climate, human and biophysical landscape characteristics for explaining variation in large fire occurrence and area burned?
Location: The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence forest of Canada.
Methods: We characterized the recent (1959–1999) regime of large (≥ 200 ha) fires in 26 deciduous-dominated landscapes and analysed these data in an information-theoretic framework to compare six hypotheses that related fire occurrence and area burned to fire weather severity, climate normals, population and road densities, and enduring landscape characteristics such as surficial deposits and large lakes.
Results: 392 large fires burned 833 698 ha during the study period, annually burning on average 0.07% ± 0.42% of forested area in each landscape. Fire activity was strongly seasonal, with most fires and area burned occurring in May and June. A combination of antecedent-winter precipitation, fire season precipitation deficit/surplus and percent of landscape covered by well-drained surficial deposits best explained fire occurrence and area burned. Fire occurrence varied only as a function of fire weather and climate variables, whereas area burned was also explained by percent cover of aspen and pine stands, human population density and two enduring characteristics: percent cover of large water bodies and glaciofluvial deposits.
Conclusion: Understanding the relative role of these variables may help design adaptation strategies for forecasted increases in fire weather severity by allowing (1) prioritization of landscapes according to enduring characteristics and (2) management of their composition so that substantially increased fire activity would be necessary to transform landscape structure and composition.