Drought and Pacific Decadal Oscillation linked to fire occurrence in the inland Pacific Northwest


Hessl, A.E., McKenzie, D., Schellhaas, R. 2004. Drought and Pacific Decadal Oscillation linked to fire occurrence in the inland Pacific Northwest. Ecological Applications 14(2): 425-442.


Historical variability of fire regimes must be understood within the context of climatic and human drivers of disturbance occurring at multiple temporal scales. We describe the relationship between fire occurrence and interannual to decadal climatic variability (Palmer Drought Severity Index [PDSI], El Nino/Southern Oscillation [ENSO], and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation [PDO]) and explain how land use changes in the 20th century affected these relationships.

We used 1701 fire-scarred trees collected in five study sites in central and eastern Washington State (USA) to investigate current year, lagged, and low frequency relationships between composite fire histories and PDSI, PDO, and ENSO (using the Southern Oscillation Index [SOI] as a measure of ENSO variability) using superposed epoch analysis and cross-spectral analysis. Fires tended to occur during dry summers and during the positive phase of the PDO. Cross-spectral analysis indicates that percentage of trees scarred by fire and the PDO are spectrally coherent at 47 years, the approximate cycle of the PDO. Similarly, percentage scarred and ENSO are spectrally coherent at six years, the approximate cycle of ENSO. However, other results suggest that ENSO was only a weak driver of fire occurrence in the past three centuries.

While drought and fire appear to be tightly linked between 1700 and 1900, the relationship between drought and fire occurrence was disrupted during the 20th century as a result of land use changes. We suggest that long-term fire planning using the PDO may be possible in the Pacific Northwest, potentially allowing decadal-scale management of fire regimes, prescribed fire, and vegetation dynamics.