Wildfires, complexity, and highly optimized tolerance

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005 Dec 13;102(50):17912-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0508985102. Epub 2005 Dec 6.


Recent, large fires in the western United States have rekindled debates about fire management and the role of natural fire regimes in the resilience of terrestrial ecosystems. This real-world experience parallels debates involving abstract models of forest fires, a central metaphor in complex systems theory. Both real and modeled fire-prone landscapes exhibit roughly power law statistics in fire size versus frequency. Here, we examine historical fire catalogs and a detailed fire simulation model; both are in agreement with a highly optimized tolerance model. Highly optimized tolerance suggests robustness tradeoffs underlie resilience in different fire-prone ecosystems. Understanding these mechanisms may provide new insights into the structure of ecological systems and be key in evaluating fire management strategies and sensitivities to climate change.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation
  • Ecosystem*
  • Fires*
  • Models, Theoretical*