Local-scale and regional climate controls on historical fire regimes in the San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Erica R. Bigio, Thomas W. Swetnam, Christopher H. Baisan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


In ponderosa pine and mixed conifer ecosystems of the Southwestern US, regional-scale climate tends to synchronize fire years among study sites and increase fire extent or severity within a forest. At landscape scales (1-100km2), fire frequency and severity may also be influenced by local-scale differences in elevation and aspect, including fire barriers in rugged terrain. This study examines local-scale and regional controls of past fire regimes in three tributary watersheds of the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. In each watershed, we sampled fire-scarred trees and tree age structure and identified fire years and cohorts of post-fire tree recruitment. Fire frequency varied by aspect, and we observed the largest differences between the north- and south-facing aspects in the two largest basins. Fire severity was also different by aspect, with low-severity fire regimes on south-facing slopes and mixed-severity fire on north-facing slopes. The majority of fire years were unique, single-basin fires, indicating a lack of synchrony of fire years among basins, which we attributed to fire barriers and rugged terrain. We conducted Superposed Epoch Analysis (SEA) on two groups of fire years, to show average climate conditions before and during fire years. The first group were unique single-basin fires (n=27) and the second group included all years when synchronous fire burned in two or three basins (n=15). Both groups had significantly dry Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) values during the fire year (p<0.01), while the second group also showed significantly wet conditions for two years prior to the fire year (p<0.01). Steep topography and fire barriers likely reduced the influence of regional climatic on the frequency and timing of fires for individual basins, though fires still burned during years of regional drought. Rugged terrain also contributed to asynchronous fire years among basins and longer fire return intervals compared with other ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests in the region.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)311-322
Number of pages12
JournalForest Ecology and Management
StatePublished - Jan 15 2016


  • Fire history
  • Fire scars
  • Fire-climate
  • Local-scale
  • Regional scale
  • San Juan Mountains
  • Topography

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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