Weak climatic control of stand-scale fire history during the late Holocene

Daniel G. Gavin, Sheng Hu Feng, Kenneth Lertzman, Peter Corbett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

234 Scopus citations


Forest fire occurrence is affected by multiple controls that operate at local to regional scales. At the spatial scale of forest stands, regional climatic controls may be obscured by local controls (e.g., stochastic ignitions, topography, and fuel loads), but the long-term role of such local controls is poorly understood. We report here stand-scale (<100 ha) fire histories of the past 5000 years based on the analysis of sediment charcoal at two lakes 11 km apart in southeastern British Columbia. The two lakes are today located in similar subalpine forests, and they likely have experienced the same late-Holocene climatic changes because of their close proximity. We evaluated two independent properties of fire history: (1) fire-interval distribution, a measure of the overall incidence of fire, and (2) fire synchroneity, a measure of the co-occurrence of fire (here, assessed at centennial to millennial time scales due to the resolution of sediment records). Fire-interval distributions differed between the sites prior to, but not after, 2500 yr before present. When the entire 5000-yr period is considered, no statistical synchrony between fire-episode dates existed between the two sites at any temporal scale, but for the last 2500 yr marginal levels of synchrony occurred at centennial scales. Each individual fire record exhibited little coherency with regional climate changes. In contrast, variations in the composite record (average of both sites) matched variations in climate evidenced by late-Holocene glacial advances. This was probably due to the increased sample size and spatial extent represented by the composite record (up to 200 ha) plus increased regional climatic variability over the last several millennia, which may have partially overridden local, non-climatic controls. We conclude that (1) over past millennia, neighboring stands with similar modern conditions may have experienced different fire intervals and asynchronous patterns in fire episodes, likely because local controls outweighed the synchronizing effect of climate; (2) the influence of climate on fire occurrence is more strongly expressed when climatic variability is relatively great; and (3) multiple records from a region are essential if climate-fire relations are to be reliably described.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1722-1732
Number of pages11
Issue number7
StatePublished - 2006


  • Bivariate ripley K function
  • British columbia
  • Charcoal
  • Climatic change
  • Fire history
  • Fire regime
  • Landscape connectivity
  • Late holocene
  • Synchrony


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