Research Article: The theory, direction, and magnitude of ecosystem fire probability as constrained by precipitation and temperature

Date Published: July 13, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Richard Guyette, Michael C. Stambaugh, Daniel Dey, Rose Marie Muzika, Ben Bond-Lamberty.


The effects of climate on wildland fire confronts society across a range of different ecosystems. Water and temperature affect the combustion dynamics, irrespective of whether those are associated with carbon fueled motors or ecosystems, but through different chemical, physical, and biological processes. We use an ecosystem combustion equation developed with the physical chemistry of atmospheric variables to estimate and simulate fire probability and mean fire interval (MFI). The calibration of ecosystem fire probability with basic combustion chemistry and physics offers a quantitative method to address wildland fire in addition to the well-studied forcing factors such as topography, ignition, and vegetation. We develop a graphic analysis tool for estimating climate forced fire probability with temperature and precipitation based on an empirical assessment of combustion theory and fire prediction in ecosystems. Climate-affected fire probability for any period, past or future, is estimated with given temperature and precipitation. A graphic analyses of wildland fire dynamics driven by climate supports a dialectic in hydrologic processes that affect ecosystem combustion: 1) the water needed by plants to produce carbon bonds (fuel) and 2) the inhibition of successful reactant collisions by water molecules (humidity and fuel moisture). These two postulates enable a classification scheme for ecosystems into three or more climate categories using their position relative to change points defined by precipitation in combustion dynamics equations. Three classifications of combustion dynamics in ecosystems fire probability include: 1) precipitation insensitive, 2) precipitation unstable, and 3) precipitation sensitive. All three classifications interact in different ways with variable levels of temperature.

Partial Text

The relative role of climate in understanding wildfire is often presented in terms of vegetation, history, ecology, policy and topography [1–5]. These studies and many others have great value, but often do little to address the primary aspect of wildland fire, i.e. that as a physical -chemical reaction, the physics and chemistry of the fire process affects combustion dynamics. Indeed, separating the primary nature of combustion reactions and climate is difficult and therefore the close coupling is often left unacknowledged or misunderstood. In addition, using the many accepted standards of fire interval analyses in fire history studies has yielded much important theory [6–9]. However, when the data provided through fire history reconstruction are considered as frequency data in a physical chemistry context it opens up the well-studied world of classic reaction chemistry with new ecosystem metrics and relevant process equations. The work describes here uses the concepts physical chemistry as a foundation for modeling combustion processes in ecosystems. The effort presented here transforms ecosystem metrics and theory from fire history data. Transcending fundamental fire ecology to more quantitative ecosystem combustion dynamics that reflect the base conditions of fire reactions creates potential approaches to understand ecosystem level climate–fire interactions. This detailed perspective on the physical chemistry of ecosystem wildfire brings with it quantitative intuitive and non-intuitive interpretations of common assumptions about wildland fire.

Using precipitation, temperature and oxygen to describe the combustion dynamics of ecosystems not only allows for descriptors of past and future fire regimes, but can be used to address process (fire) deficits in ecosystems [22 – 25]. Ecosystem Combustion-Climate diagrams enable land managers to estimate future fire probabilities from given temperature and precipitation data. Understanding the change in fire probability based on combustion dynamics of atmosphere and fuels can determine fuels programs [24]. Combustion dynamic categories in ecosystems, 1) precipitation insensitive, 2) precipitation unstable and 3) precipitation sensitive, allow long-term management and steady improvement in climate–fire models and understanding. Whether an increase in precipitation results in more or less fire depends strongly on temperature. Although this concept may be expected, it has not been quantified and used predictively. Other applications of this approach include:




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