Socioecological transitions trigger fire regime shifts and modulate fire-climate interactions in the Sierra Nevada, USA, 1600-2015 CE

Alan H. Taylor, Valerie Trouet, Carl N. Skinner, Scott Stephens

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150 Scopus citations


Large wildfires in California cause significant socioecological impacts, and half of the federal funds for fire suppression are spent each year in California. Future fire activity is projected to increase with climate change, but predictions are uncertain because humans can modulate or even override climatic effects on fire activity. Here we test the hypothesis that changes in socioecological systems from the Native American to the current period drove shifts in fire activity and modulated fire-climate relationships in the Sierra Nevada. We developed a 415-y record (1600-2015 CE) of fire activity by merging a tree-ring-based record of Sierra Nevada fire history with a 20th-century record based on annual area burned. Large shifts in the fire record corresponded with socioecological change, and not climate change, and socioecological conditions amplified and buffered fire response to climate. Fire activity was highest and fire-climate relationships were strongest after Native American depopulation - following mission establishment (ca. 1775 CE) - reduced the self-limiting effect of Native American burns on fire spread. With the Gold Rush and Euro-American settlement (ca. 1865 CE), fire activity declined, and the strong multidecadal relationship between temperature and fire decayed and then disappeared after implementation of fire suppression (ca. 1904 CE). The amplification and buffering of fire-climate relationships by humans underscores the need for parameterizing thresholds of human- vs. climate-driven fire activity to improve the skill and value of fire-climate models for addressing the increasing fire risk in California.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)13684-13689
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number48
StatePublished - Nov 29 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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