The impact of antecedent fire area on burned area in southern California coastal ecosystems
Frequent wildfire disasters in southern California highlight the need for risk reduction strategies for the region, of which fuel reduction via prescribed burning is one option. However, there is no consensus about the effectiveness of prescribed fire in reducing the area of wildfire. Here, we use 29 years of historical fire mapping to quantify the relationship between annual wildfire area and antecedent fire area in predominantly shrub and grassland fuels in seven southern California counties, controlling for annual variation in weather patterns. This method has been used elsewhere to measure leverage: the reduction in wildfire area resulting from one unit of prescribed fire treatment. We found little evidence for a leverage effect (leverage = zero). Specifically our results showed no evidence that wildfire area was negatively influenced by previous fires, and only weak relationships with weather variables rainfall and Santa Ana wind occurrences, which were variables included to control for inter-annual variation. We conclude that this is because only 2% of the vegetation burns each year and so wildfires rarely encounter burned patches and chaparral shrublands can carry a fire within 1 or 2 years after previous fire. Prescribed burning is unlikely to have much influence on fire regimes in this area, though targeted treatment at the urban interface may be effective at providing defensible space for protecting assets. These results fit an emerging global model of fire leverage which position California at the bottom end of a continuum, with tropical savannas at the top (leverage = 1: direct replacement of wildfire by prescribed fire) and Australian eucalypt forests in the middle (leverage ∼ 0.25).