Large, high-intensity fire events in southern California shrublands: debunking the fine-grain age patch model


  • Jon E. Keeley,

    Corresponding author
    1. U.S. Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center, Sequoia-Kings Canyon Field Station, Three Rivers, California 93271 USA
    2. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095 USA
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  • Paul H. Zedler

    1. University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum, Madison, Wisconsin 53711 USA
    2. Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, Wisconsin 53706 USA
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  • Corresponding Editor: J. A. Antos.


We evaluate the fine-grain age patch model of fire regimes in southern California shrublands. Proponents contend that the historical condition was characterized by frequent small to moderate size, slow-moving smoldering fires, and that this regime has been disrupted by fire suppression activities that have caused unnatural fuel accumulation and anomalously large and catastrophic wildfires. A review of more than 100 19th-century newspaper reports reveals that large, high-intensity wildfires predate modern fire suppression policy, and extensive newspaper coverage plus first-hand accounts support the conclusion that the 1889 Santiago Canyon Fire was the largest fire in California history.

Proponents of the fine-grain age patch model contend that even the very earliest 20th-century fires were the result of fire suppression disrupting natural fuel structure. We tested that hypothesis and found that, within the fire perimeters of two of the largest early fire events in 1919 and 1932, prior fire suppression activities were insufficient to have altered the natural fuel structure. Over the last 130 years there has been no significant change in the incidence of large fires greater than 10 000 ha, consistent with the conclusion that fire suppression activities are not the cause of these fire events. Eight megafires (≥50 000 ha) are recorded for the region, and half have occurred in the last five years. These burned through a mosaic of age classes, which raises doubts that accumulation of old age classes explains these events. Extreme drought is a plausible explanation for this recent rash of such events, and it is hypothesized that these are due to droughts that led to increased dead fine fuels that promoted the incidence of firebrands and spot fires.

A major shortcoming of the fine-grain age patch model is that it requires age-dependent flammability of shrubland fuels, but seral stage chaparral is dominated by short-lived species that create a dense surface layer of fine fuels. Results from the Behave Plus fire model with a custom fuel module for young chaparral shows that there is sufficient dead fuel to spread fire even under relatively little winds. Empirical studies of fuel ages burned in recent fires illustrate that young fuels often comprise a major portion of burned vegetation, and there is no difference between evergreen chaparral and semi-deciduous sage scrub.

It has also been argued that the present-day fire size distribution in northern Baja California is a model of the historical patterns that were present on southern California landscapes. Applying this model with historical fire frequencies shows that the Baja model is inadequate to maintain these fire-prone ecosystems and further demonstrates that fire managers in southern California are not likely to learn much from studying modern Baja California fire regimes. Further supporting this conclusion are theoretical cellular automata models of fire spread, which show that, even in systems with age dependent flammability, landscapes evolve toward a complex age mosaic with a plausible age structure only when there is a severe stopping rule that constrains fire size, and only if ignitions are saturating.