A new model of landscape-scale fire connectivity applied to resource and fire management in the Sonoran Desert, USA

Authors

  • Miranda E. Gray,

    Corresponding author
    1. Lab of Landscape Ecology and Conservation Biology, Landscape Conservation Initiative, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011 USA
    2. Conservation Science Partners, Truckee, California 96161 USA
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  • Brett G. Dickson

    1. Lab of Landscape Ecology and Conservation Biology, Landscape Conservation Initiative, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011 USA
    2. Conservation Science Partners, Truckee, California 96161 USA
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  • Corresponding Editor: W. J. D. van Leeuwen

Abstract

Understanding where and when on the landscape fire is likely to burn (fire likelihood) and the predicted responses of valued resources (fire effects) will lead to more effective management of wildfire risk in multiple ecosystem types. Fire is a contagious and highly unpredictable process, and an analysis of fire connectivity that incorporates stochasticity may help predict fire likelihood across large extents. We developed a model of fire connectivity based on electrical circuit theory, which is a probabilistic approach to modeling ecological flows. We first parameterized our model to reflect the synergistic influences of fuels, landscape properties, and winds on fire spread in the lower Sonoran Desert of southwestern Arizona, and then defined this landscape as an interconnected network through which to model flow (i.e., fire spread). We interpreted the mapped outputs as fire likelihood and used historical burned area data to evaluate our results. Expected fire effects were characterized based on the degree to which future fire exposure might negatively impact native plant community recovery, taking into account the impact of repeated fire and major vegetation associations. We explored fire effects within habitat for the endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope and designated wilderness. Model results indicated that fire likelihood was higher in lower elevations, and in areas with lower slopes and topographic roughness. Fire likelihood and effects were predicted to be high in 21% of the currently occupied range of the Sonoran pronghorn and 15% of the additional habitat considered suitable. Across 16 designated wilderness areas, highest predicted fire likelihood and effects fell within low elevation wilderness areas that overlapped large fire perimeters that occurred in 2005. As ongoing changes in climate and land cover are poised to alter the fire regime across extensive and ecologically important areas in the lower Sonoran Desert, an analysis of fire likelihood and effects can contribute new and important information to fire and fuels management. Our novel approach to modeling fire connectivity addresses challenges in quantifying and communicating wildfire risk and is applicable to other ecosystems and management issues globally.

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