Risk-based determination of critical nitrogen deposition loads for fire spread in southern California deserts

Leela E. Rao, Edith B. Allen, Meixner Thomas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


Fire risk in deserts is increased by high production of annual forbs and invasive grasses that create a continuous fine fuel bed in the interspaces between shrubs. Interspace production is influenced by water, nitrogen (N) availability, and soil texture, and in some areas N availability is increasing due to anthropogenic N deposition. The DayCent model was used to investigate how production of herbaceous annuals changes along gradients of precipitation, N availability, and soil texture, and to develop risk-based critical N loads. DayCent was parameterized for two vegetation types within Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA: creosote bush (CB) and piflon-juniper (PJ). The model was successfully calibrated in both vegetation types, but validation showed that the model is sensitive to soil clay content. Despite this fact, DayCent (the daily version of the biogeochemical model CENTURY) performed well in predicting the relative response of production to N fertilization and was used to determine estimates of fire risk for these ecosystems. Fire risk, the probability that annual biomass exceeds the fire threshold of 1000 kg/ha, was determined for each vegetation type and began to increase when N deposition increased 0.05 g/m 2 above background levels (0.1 g/m2). Critical loads were calculated as the amount of N deposition at the point when fire risk began to increase exponentially. Mean critical loads for all soil types and precipitation <21 cm/yr, representing the majority of our study region, were 0.32 ± 0.07 and 0.39 ± 0.09 g N/m2 for CB and PJ, respectively. Critical loads decreased with increasing soil clay content and increasing precipitation, such that the wettest areas with clay contents of 6-14% may have critical loads as low as 0.15 g N/m2. Mean fire risks approached their maximum at 0.93 ± 0.21 and 0.87 ± 0.17 g N/m2 in CB and PJ, indicating that precipitation is the driver of fire above these N deposition levels, which are currently observed in some areas of the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts. Overall, this analysis demonstrates the importance of considering both N deposition and precipitation when evaluating fire risk across arid landscapes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1320-1335
Number of pages16
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 2010


  • Arid
  • Biogeochemkal model
  • Bromus
  • Climate change
  • Desert
  • Exotic grasses
  • Fire risk
  • Fuel load
  • Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA
  • Larrea tridentate
  • Schismus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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