Multi-season climate synchronized forest fires throughout the 20th century, northern Rockies, U.S.A

Ecology. 2008 Mar;89(3):717-28. doi: 10.1890/06-2049.1.


We inferred climate drivers of 20th-century years with regionally synchronous forest fires in the U.S. northern Rockies. We derived annual fire extent from an existing fire atlas that includes 5038 fire polygons recorded from 12,070,086 ha, or 71% of the forested land in Idaho and Montana west of the Continental Divide. The 11 regional-fire years, those exceeding the 90th percentile in annual fire extent from 1900 to 2003 (>102,314 ha or approximately 1% of the fire atlas recording area), were concentrated early and late in the century (six from 1900 to 1934 and five from 1988 to 2003). During both periods, regional-fire years were ones when warm springs were followed by warm, dry summers and also when the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) was positive. Spring snowpack was likely reduced during warm springs and when PDO was positive, resulting in longer fire seasons. Regional-fire years did not vary with El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) or with climate in antecedent years. The long mid-20th century period lacking regional-fire years (1935-1987) had generally cool springs, generally negative PDO, and a lack of extremely dry summers; also, this was a period of active fire suppression. The climate drivers of regionally synchronous fire that we inferred are congruent with those of previous centuries in this region, suggesting a strong influence of spring and summer climate on fire activity throughout the 20th century despite major land-use change and fire suppression efforts. The relatively cool, moist climate during the mid-century gap in regional-fire years likely contributed to the success of fire suppression during that period. In every regional-fire year, fires burned across a range of vegetation types. Given our results and the projections for warmer springs and continued warm, dry summers, forests of the U.S. northern Rockies are likely to experience synchronous, large fires in the future.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Chronology as Topic
  • Climate*
  • Disasters
  • Fires*
  • Forestry*
  • Idaho
  • Montana
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Rain*
  • Seasons
  • Time Factors
  • Trees