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Warming enabled upslope advance in western US forest fires


Increases in burned area and large fire occurrence are widely documented over the western United States over the past half century. Here, we focus on the elevational distribution of forest fires in mountainous ecoregions of the western United States and show the largest increase rates in burned area above 2,500 m during 1984 to 2017. Furthermore, we show that high-elevation fires advanced upslope with a median cumulative change of 252 m (-107 to 656 m; 95% CI) in 34 y across studied ecoregions. We also document a strong interannual relationship between high-elevation fires and warm season vapor pressure deficit (VPD). The upslope advance of fires is consistent with observed warming reflected by a median upslope drift of VPD isolines of 295 m (59 to 704 m; 95% CI) during 1984 to 2017. These findings allow us to estimate that recent climate trends reduced the high-elevation flammability barrier and enabled fires in an additional 11% of western forests. Limited influences of fire management practices and longer fire-return intervals in these montane mesic systems suggest these changes are largely a byproduct of climate warming. Further weakening in the high-elevation flammability barrier with continued warming has the potential to transform montane fire regimes with numerous implications for ecosystems and watersheds.

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