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Fire Ecology, 2011
Volume 7, Issue 3

A Summary of Fire Frequency Estimates for California Vegetation before Euro-American Settlement
Authors: Kip M. Van de Water and Hugh Safford
Pages: 26-58
DOI: 10.4996/fireecology.0703026

California fire regimes have been altered from those that occurred prior to Euro-American settlement, and are predicted to continue to change as global climates warm. Inclusion of fire as a landscape-level process is considered essential to successful ecological restoration in many ecosystems, and presettlement fire regimes provide foundational information for restoration or “realignment” of ecosystems as climate change and land use changes progress. The objective of our study was to provide an up-to-date, comprehensive summary of presettlement fire frequency estimates for California ecosystems dominated by woody plants, and to supply the basis for fire return interval departure (FRID) mapping and analysis in California. Using the LANDFIRE Biophysical Settings (BpS) vegetation-fire regime types as a framework, we used literature review and the outcomes of regional expert workshops to develop twenty-eight presettlement fire regime (PFR) groups based on similarity of their relationships with fire. We then conducted an exhaustive review of the published and unpublished literature pertaining to fire return intervals (FRIs) observed prior to significant Euro-American settlement in the twenty-eight PFRs, and summarized the values to provide a single estimate of the mean, median, mean minimum, and mean maximum FRI for each PFR.

Much variability was evident among PFRs, with mean FRIs ranging from 11 yr to 610 yr, and median FRIs ranging from 7 yr to 610 yr; mean minimum FRIs ranged from 5 yr to 190 yr, and mean maximum FRIs ranged from 40 yr to 1440 yr. There was also high variability within many PFRs, and differences between minimum and maximum FRIs ranged from 32 yr to 1324 yr. Generally, median FRIs were lowest for productive drier forests such as yellow pine, dry and moist mixed conifer, and oak woodland (7 yr, 9 yr, 12 yr, and 12 yr, respectively). Median FRIs were highest for less productive woodlands such as pinyon-juniper (94 yr), high elevation types such as subalpine forest (132 yr), very dry types such as desert mixed shrub (610 yr), and productive moist forests such as spruce-hemlock (275 yr mean FRI). Our summary of California’s presettlement fire regimes should be a useful reference for scientists and resource managers, whether they are seeking a general estimate of the central tendency and variability of FRIs in a broadly defined vegetation type, background information for a planned restoration project or a mechanistic model of vegetation-fire interactions, or a list of literature pertaining to a specific vegetation type or geographic location.

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