Fire Dynamics

Fire is a critical component in the functioning of many ecosystems. It maintains and shapes vegetation structure and biotic communities, promotes natural regeneration and habitat diversity, takes part in biogeochemical cycles, and can influence soil properties and water functions (Thonicke et al. 2001; Bond and Keeley 2005). Unlike grazing, fires consume both dead and living material and do not discriminate between edible and non-edible plants (Bond and Keeley 2005), but may act as a selective pressure over fire resistant traits (Pausas and Bradstock 2007; Pausas et al. 2006).

Fire-dependent systems cover about 53 % of the world's terrestrial surface (Shlisky et al. 2007). These systems evolved in the presence of fire and depend on this disturbance to maintain their structure and composition (e.g., Mediterranean forests and boreal forests), with fire regimes characterized by their frequency, intensity, seasonality, and specific to each ecosystem. In addition, 22 % of the world's terrestrial area is covered by fire-sensitive ecosystems, where fire plays a minor role in maintaining ecosystem structure and composition (e.g., broadleaved and mixed forests in the Alps), 15 % is covered by fire-independent ecosystems, where fire is not an evolutionary force due to the scarcity of fuel or ignition sources (e.g. tundra), and the remaining 10 % are not yet classified (Shlisky et al. 2007).

In Europe, natural fire regimes are mainly of two types: (i) intense and large, and

(ii) cool and small (Archibald et al. 2013). The former type is typical of Mediterranean and boreal ecosystems, where large crown fires of high intensity return at intervals that can span from a decade, in particular in Mediterranean regions, to more than a century (Archibald et al. 2013). The latter type occurs interspersed with the first type, in the same biomes, and is associated with surface fires burning litter fuels (Archibald et al. 2013). However, due to a long history of human presence, many ecosystems in Europe, including fire-sensitive systems, present altered fire-regimes resulting from land-use changes and anthropogenic fire management (Shlisky et al. 2007; Archibald et al. 2013; Molinari et al. 2013). Current yearly fire occurrence in Europe ranges from less than five per NUTS3[1]to nearly a hundred in areas of the Mediterranean region, which also presents the largest average of area burned yearly, with over 10,000 ha/year in some NUTS (European Commission 2010). Four types of areas can be identified in Europe, based on their fire regimes, when combining both the occurrences of fire and the average area burned in each NUTS3 (Fig. 8.2). Central France, North-Eastern Germany, and most of Romania present small fire regimes, with few fires (< 20 per year) and little area burned (< 35 ha). Poland, most of the Baltic and Scandinavian countries are areas with relatively high occurrences of fire (> 50 per year) but small area burned (< 35 ha). In contrast, most of Bulgaria and Greece are regions where a small number of fires (< 20 per year) are sufficient to burn large areas (> 115 ha). Finally, Southern Italy, Croatia and the Iberian Peninsula are areas with both high fire frequency (> 50 per year) and large areas burned (> 115 ha).

Fig. 8.2  Occurrence and intensity of fires in Europe over the 2005–2010 period. The average yearly occurrence of fire and average area burned (ha) for the 2005–2010 period, per NUTS3 administrative unit were calculated, only including NUTS3 for which data were available for at least 4 years. For both metrics, the data were split in two groups around the median value. The double color ramp allows to identify areas with high number of fire but low area burned ( yellow), areas with low occurrence of fire but large burned areas ( orange), areas with few fire and small areas burned ( green), and areas with both high occurrence of fire and large burned areas ( red). (Source: EFFIS for the fire data (European Commission 2010) and © EuroGeographics for the map of administrative boundaries)

Fire suppression is a common land management policy implemented to protect human communities and land (Shlisky et al. 2007; Fernandes 2013) but it also promotes fuel accumulation in fire-dependent systems and increases the risk of large and intense fires (Proença et al. 2010; Fernandes 2013). On the other hand, fire has also been extensively used as a tool to clear landscapes and reduce fire risk. In Europe, anthropogenic fires are often more frequent than natural fires. High frequency fire regimes can cause species community impoverishment, through the exclusion of fire sensitive species and the promotion of fire resilient species that can endure frequent fires, and it can also cause extensive soil degradation and nutrient loss (Thonicke et al. 2001). This is particularly true for Mediterranean ecosystems, where 93 % of fire regimes are considered to be in a degraded or very degraded state (Shlisky et al. 2007).

Today, farmland abandonment is driving further changes in fire regimes across Europe, particularly in Southern Europe, with potential impacts for biodiversity and ecosystem services (Mouillot et al. 2005; Bassi et al. 2008; Proença and Pereira 2010). Where the number of ignitions is not a limiting factor, which is true in many regions under farmland abandonment (Bassi et al. 2008; Ganteaume et al. 2013), climate and fuel availability will be the main determinants of future changes to the fire regime. In high-productivity ecosystems with a high level of humidity, such as temperate broadleaved forests, fires will be limited by climate and humidity level, and less responsive to changes in fuel accumulation, since fuel is already a non-limiting factor (Pausas and Ribeiro 2013). Vegetation will be more susceptible to fire during warmer seasons following droughts, when the existing fuel is more flammable (Proença et al. 2010; Pausas and Ribeiro 2013). In low-productivity ecosystems, such as arid Mediterranean scrublands, fuel is the main limiting factor and will be the main driver of shifts in the fire regime (Pausas and Fernández-Muñoz 2012; Pausas and Ribeiro 2013). Recent trends in the Western Mediterranean Basin support the above predictions (Pausas and Fernández-Muñoz 2012). In this region, fields used to be grazed, frequently burned (small scale) and cleared for farming and timber (Proença and Pereira 2010), limiting fuel availability. The rural exodus since the mid-twentieth century led to shrub encroachment and afforestation with fireprone species, and resulted in more frequent, more intense and larger fires. Today, increased fuel load and spatial continuity are driving a shift in the fire regime, which is becoming more responsive to drought, similar to high-productivity ecosystems (Pausas and Fernández-Muñoz 2012). In the future, the response of fire regime to changes in climatic variables, such as precipitation, is expected to be non-linear (Batllori et al. 2013): while a small decrease in annual precipitation may increase probability of fire, a large decrease may lead to the inverse response due to a drop in ecosystem productivity, leading the system back to a fuel-limited fire regime.

  • [1] Third level of the EU Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics.
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