Landscape-scale controls over 20th century fire occurrence in two large Rocky Mountain (USA) wilderness areas

Matthew G. Rollins, Penelope Morgan, Thomas Swetnam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

116 Scopus citations


Topography, vegetation, and climate act together to determine the spatial patterns of fires at landscape scales. Knowledge of landscape-fire-climate relations at these broad scales (1,000s ha to 100,000s ha) is limited and is largely based on inferences and extrapolations from fire histories reconstructed from finer scales. In this study, we used long time series of fire perimeter data (fire atlases) and data for topography, vegetation, and climate to evaluate relationships between large 20thcentury fires and landscape characteristics in two contrasting areas: the 486,673-ha Gila/Aldo Leopold Wilderness Complex (GALWC) in New Mexico, USA, and the 785,090-ha Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Complex (SBWC) in Idaho and Montana, USA. There were important similarities and differences in gradients of topography, vegetation, and climate for areas with different fire frequencies, both within and between study areas. These unique and general relationships, when compared between study areas, highlight important characteristics of fire regimes in the Northern and Southern Rocky Mountains of the Western United States. Results suggest that amount and horizontal continuity of herbaceous fuels limit the frequency and spread of surface fires in the GALWC, while the moisture status of large fuels and crown fuels limits the frequency of moderate-to-high severity fires in the SBWC. These empirically described spatial and temporal relationships between fire, landscape attributes, and climate increase understanding of interactions among broad-scale ecosystem processes. Results also provide a historical baseline for fire management planning over broad spatial and temporal scales in each wilderness complex.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)539-557
Number of pages19
JournalLandscape Ecology
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2002


  • Fire atlases
  • Fire ecology
  • Fire history
  • Fire regimes
  • Pattern-process interactions
  • Rocky Mountains

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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