Effects of Fire and Climate Change in Mediterranean landscapes

Existing data shows that future developments in global change drivers may lead to an increased impact of fires on terrestrial ecosystems worldwide. Yet fire regime changes in highly humanised fire-prone regions are difficult to predict because the effect of fires may be heavily mediated by human activities. This study investigated the role of fire suppression strategies in synergy with climate change on the resulting fire regimes in Catalonia (north-eastern Spain). Using a spatially-explicit fire-succession model at landscape level, they tested whether the use of different fire-fighting methods were related to observed reductions in fire spread rates and effective fire sizes, and hence changes in the fire regime.

Researchers calibrated the model with data from a period with weak fire-fighting and later assessed the potential for suppression strategies to modify the fire regimes expected under different levels of climate change. When comparing simulations with observed fire statistics from an eleven-year period with fire-fighting strategies in place, results showed that, at least in two of the three sub-regions analysed, the observed fire regime could not be reproduced unless the effects of fire suppression were taken into account. Fire regime descriptors were highly dependent on climate change scenarios, with a general trend towards large-scale increases in the burnt area for baseline scenarios without fire suppression.

Fire suppression strategies had a strong capacity to compensate for climate change effects. However, strong, active fire suppression was necessary, as more opportunistic fire suppression strategies only had a variable, but generally weak, potential for compensation of enhanced fire impacts under climate change. The concept of fire regime in the Mediterranean is probably better interpreted as a highly dynamic process in which the main determinants of fire are rapidly modified by changes in landscape, climate and socioeconomic factors, such as fire suppression strategies.

Brotons L, Aquilué N, de Cáceres M, Fortin M-J, Fall A (2013) How Fire History, Fire Suppression Practices and Climate Change Affect Wildfire Regimes in Mediterranean Landscapes. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62392. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062392

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