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Keywords:

  • boreal forests;
  • Canada;
  • fire spread;
  • MODIS fire detections;
  • temperate forests;
  • weather

Abstract

Given that they can burn for weeks or months, wildfires in temperate and boreal forests may become immense (eg., 100 – 104 km2). However, during the period within which a large fire is ‘active’, not all days experience weather that is conducive to fire spread; indeed most of the spread occurs on a small proportion (e.g., 1 – 15 days) of not necessarily consecutive days during the active period. This study examines and compares the Canada-wide patterns in fire-conducive weather (‘potential’ spread) and the spread that occurs on the ground (‘realized’ spread). Results show substantial variability in distributions of potential and realized spread days across Canada. Both potential and realized spread are higher in western than in eastern Canada; however, whereas potential spread generally decreases from south to north, there is no such pattern with realized spread. The realized-to-potential fire-spread ratio is considerably higher in northern Canada than in the south, indicating that proportionally more fire-conducive days translate into fire progression. An exploration of environmental correlates to spread show that there may be a few factors compensating for the lower potential spread in northern Canada: a greater proportion of coniferous (i.e., more flammable) vegetation, lesser human impacts (i.e., less fragmented landscapes), sufficient fire ignitions, and intense droughts. Because a linear relationship exists between the frequency distributions of potential spread days and realized spread days in a fire zone, it is possible to obtain one from the other using a simple conversion factor. Our methodology thus provides a means to estimate realized fire spread from weather-based data in regions where fire databases are poor, which may improve our ability to predict future fire activity.