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Increases in fire risk due to warmer summer temperatures and wildland urban interface changes do not necessarily lead to more fires

Abstract : Forest fire frequency in Mediterranean countries is expected to increase with land cover and climate changes as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns are altered. Although the cause of many Mediterra-nean fires remains poorly defined, most fires are of anthropogenic origin and are located in the wildland urban interface (WUI), so fire ignition risk depends on both weather and land cover characteristics. The objectives of this study were to quantify the overall trends in forest fire risk in the WUI of the Alpes-Maritimes department in SE France over a period of almost 50 years (about 1960e2009) and relate these to changes in land cover and temperature changes. Land cover for two contrasting reference catchments (236 km 2 and 289 km 2 , respectively) was mapped from available aerial photographs. Changes in fire risk over time were estimated using statistical relationships defined for each type of WUI, where isolated and scattered housing present a greater risk than dense and very dense housing. Summer monthly temperatures and spring and summer precipitation were quantified over the same temporal period as land cover. Finally, trends in fire frequency and burned area were analyzed over a shorter 37 year period (1973e2009) due to the lack of available fire data before 1973. Fire risk associated with WUI expansion increased by about 18%e80% over the 1960e2009 period (depending on the catchment). Similarly, mean summer minimum and maximum monthly temperatures increased by 1.8 C and 1.4 C, respectively, over the same period. Summer rainfall appears to decrease over time since about the 1970's but remains highly variable. Land cover and weather changes both suggest an overall increase in fire risk. However, the number of fires and burned area have decreased significantly since about 1990. This paradoxical result is due to a change in fire-fighting strategy which reinforced the systematic extinction of fires in their early stages. Technical support in the form of improved radio communication and helicopters contributed greatly to reducing fire frequency and burned area. Surveillance and legal reforms included the introduction of field patrols and restricted access to forests during high risk periods. Although this has proven highly successful in the short term, the risk of fuel load accumulation over time remains a risk which might contribute to the development of mega-fires in extreme climatic conditions in the future.
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Submitted on : Wednesday, March 18, 2015 - 5:06:10 PM
Last modification on : Tuesday, October 13, 2020 - 3:10:09 AM

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Dennis Fox, Nicolas Martin, Pierre Carrega, Julien Andrieu, Cyriel Adnès, et al.. Increases in fire risk due to warmer summer temperatures and wildland urban interface changes do not necessarily lead to more fires. Applied Geography, Elsevier, 2014, pp.12. ⟨10.1016/j.apgeog.2014.10.001⟩. ⟨hal-01133187⟩

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