Contrasting controls on wildland fires in Southern California during periods with and without Santa Ana winds
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1002/2013JG002541
Wildland fires in Southern California can be divided into two categories: fall fires, which are typically driven by strong offshore Santa Ana winds, and summer fires, which occur with comparatively weak onshore winds and hot and dry weather. Both types of fire contribute significantly to annual burned area and economic loss. An improved understanding of the relationship between Southern California's meteorology and fire is needed to improve predictions of how fire will change in the future and to anticipate management needs. We used output from a regional climate model constrained by reanalysis observations to identify Santa Ana events and partition fires into those occurring during periods with and without Santa Ana conditions during 1959–2009. We then developed separate empirical regression models for Santa Ana and non-Santa Ana fires to quantify the effects of meteorology on fire number and size. These models explained approximately 58% of the seasonal and interannual variation in the number of Santa Ana fires and 36% of the variation in non-Santa Ana fires. The number of Santa Ana fires increased during years when relative humidity during Santa Ana events and fall precipitation were below average, indicating that fuel moisture is a key controller of ignition. Relative humidity strongly affected Santa Ana fire size. Cumulative precipitation during the previous three winters was significantly correlated with the number of non-Santa Ana fires, presumably through increased fine fuel density and connectivity between infrastructure and nearby vegetation. Both relative humidity and the preceding wet season precipitation influenced non-Santa Ana fire size. Regression models driven by meteorology explained 57% of the temporal variation in Santa Ana burned area and 22% of the variation in non-Santa Ana burned area. The area burned by non-Santa Ana fires has increased steadily by 1.7% year−1 since 1959 (p < 0.006); the occurrence of extremely large Santa Ana fires has increased abruptly since 2003. Our results underscore the need to separately consider the fuel and meteorological controls on Santa Ana and non-Santa Ana fires when projecting climate change impacts on regional fire.