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Two thresholds determine climatic control of forest-fire size in Europe

DOI: 10.5194/bgd-9-9065-2012

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Abstract:

Fire weather indices predict fire extent from meteorological conditions assuming a monotonic function; this approach is frequently used to predict future fire patterns under climate change scenarios using linear extrapolation. However, the relationship between weather and fire extent may potentially depend on the existence of fuel humidity thresholds above which this relationship changes dramatically, challenging this statistical approach. Here we combine the continuous and the threshold approaches to analyze satellite-detected fires in Europe during 2001–2010 in relation to meteorological conditions, showing that fire size response to increasing dryness follows a ramp function, i.e. with two plateaus separated by a phase of monotonic increase. This study confirms that at a continental and a high-resolution temporal scales, large fires are very unlikely to occur under moist conditions, but it also reveals that fire size stops to be controlled by fuel humidity above a given threshold of dryness. Thus, fuel humidity control only applies when fire is not limited by other factors such as fuel load, as large fires are virtually absent in dry regions with less than 500 mm of average annual rainfall, i.e. where fuel amount is insufficient. In regions with sufficient fuel, other factors such as fire suppression or fuel discontinuity can impede large fires even under very dry weather conditions. These findings are relevant under current climatic trends in which the fire season length, in terms of number of days with DC (drought code) values above the observed thresholds (break points), is increasing in many parts of the Mediterranean, while it is decreasing in Eastern Europe and remains unchanged in Central Europe.

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