Fire severity, size, and climate associations diverge from historical precedent along an ecological gradient in the Pinaleño Mountains, Arizona, USA

Christopher D. O'Connor, Donald A. Falk, Ann M. Lynch, Thomas W. Swetnam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

105 Scopus citations


In recent decades fire size and severity have been increasing in high elevation forests of the American Southwest. Ecological outcomes of these increases are difficult to gauge without an historical context for the role of fire in these systems prior to interruption by Euro-American land uses. Across the gradient of forest types in the Pinaleño Mountains, a Sky Island system in southeast Arizona that experienced two relatively large high-severity fires in the last two decades, we compared fire characteristics and climate associations before and after the onset of fire exclusion to determine the degree of similarity between past and recent fires. We use a gridded fire scar and demography sampling network to reconstruct spatially explicit estimates of fire extent and burn severity, as well as climate associations of fires from individual site to landscape scales from 1640 to 2008 C.E. We found that patterns of fire frequency, size, and severity were relatively stable for at least several centuries prior to 1880. A combination of livestock grazing and active fire suppression after circa 1880 led to (1) a significant reduction in fire spread but not fire ignition, (2) a conversion of more than 80% of the landscape from a frequent, low to mixed-severity fire regime to an infrequent mixed to high-severity fire regime, and (3) an increase in fuel continuity within a mid-elevation zone of dry mixed-conifer forest, resulting in increased opportunities for surface and crown fire spread into higher elevation mesic forests. The two most recent fires affecting mesic forests were associated with drought and temperature conditions that were not exceptional in the historical record but that resulted in a relative proportion of high burn severity up to four times that of previous large fires. The ecological effects of these recent fires appear to be more severe than any fire in the reconstructed period, casting uncertainty upon the recovery of historical species composition in high-severity burn patches. Significant changes to the spatial pattern, frequency, and climate associations of spreading fires after 1880 suggest that limits to fuel loading and fuel connectivity sustained by frequent fire have been removed. Coinciding factors of high fuel continuity and fuel loading, projected lengthening of the fire season, and increased variability in seasonal precipitation suggest that large high-severity fires, especially in mixed-conifer forests, will become the predominant fire type without aggressive actions to reduce fuel continuity and restore fire-resilient forest structure and species composition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)264-278
Number of pages15
JournalForest Ecology and Management
StatePublished - Oct 1 2014


  • Climate
  • Elevation gradient
  • ENSO
  • Fire history
  • PDSI
  • Spatial reconstruction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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