Aim To understand how vegetation mediates the interplay between fire and climate. Specifically, we predict that neither the switching of climatic conditions to high flammability nor the sensitivity of fire to such conditions are universal, but rather depend on fuel (vegetation) structure, which in turn changes with productivity.
Location An aridity/productivity gradient on the Iberian Peninsula (Mediterranean Basin).
Methods We defined 13 regions distributed along an aridity gradient, which thus differ in productivity and fuel structure. We then assessed the changes in the temporal fire–climate relationship across regions. Specifically, for each region we estimated three variables: the aridity level for switching to flammable conditions (i.e. climatic conditions conducive to fire), the frequency of these flammable conditions and the area burnt under such conditions. These variables were then related to regional aridity and fuel structure indicators.
Results In mediterranean ecosystems, the aridity level for switching to flammable conditions increased along the aridity gradient. Differences in fire activity between regions were not explained by the frequency of flammable conditions but by the sensitivity of fire to such conditions, which was higher in wetter and more productive regions.
Main conclusions Under mediterranean climatic conditions, fuel structure is more relevant in driving fire activity than the frequency of climatic conditions conducive to fire. At a global scale, fuel also drives the fire–climate relationship because it determines the climatic (aridity) threshold for switching to flammable conditions. Our results emphasize the role of landscape structure in shaping current and future fire–climate relationships at a regional scale, and suggest that future changes in the fire regime (i.e. under global warming) might be different from what it is predicted by climate alone.