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View: Abstract

Fire frequency in the Columbia River Basin: Building regional models from fire history data

McKenzie, D., D.L. Peterson, and J.K. Agee. 2000. Fire frequency in the Columbia River Basin: Building regional models from fire history data. Ecological Applications 10(5):1497-1516.


Fire frequency affects vegetation composition and successional pathways; thus it is essential to understand fire regimes in order to manage natural resources at broad spatial scales. Fire history data are lacking for many regions for which fire management decisions are being made, so models are needed to estimate past fire frequency where local data are not yet available.

We developed multiple regression models and tree-based (classification and regression tree, or CART) models to predict fire return intervals across the interior Columbia River basin at 1-km resolution, using georeferenced fire history, potential vegetation, cover type, and precipitation databases. The models combined semiqualitative methods and rigorous statistics. The fire history data are of uneven quality; some estimates are based on only one tree, and many are not cross-dated. Therefore, we weighted the models based on data quality and performed a sensitivity analysis of the effects on the models of estimation errors that are due to lack of cross-dating.

The regression models predict fire return intervals from 1 to 375 yr for forested areas, whereas the tree-based models predict a range of 8 to 150 yr. Both types of models predict latitudinal and elevational gradients of increasing fire return intervals. Examination of regional-scale output suggests that, although the tree-based models explain more of the variation in the original data, the regression models are less likely to produce extrapolation errors. Thus, the models serve complementary purposes in elucidating the relationships among fire frequency, the predictor variables, and spatial scale.

The models can provide local managers with quantitative information and provide data to initialize coarse-scale fire-effects models, although predictions for individual sites should be treated with caution because of the varying quality and uneven spatial coverage of the fire history database. The models also demonstrate the integration of qualitative and quantitative methods when requisite data for fully quantitative models are unavailable. They can be tested by comparing new, independent fire history reconstructions against their predictions and can be continually updated, as better fire history data become available.