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Jane G. Cawson, Luke Collins, Sean A. Parks, Rachael H. Nolan, Trent D. Penman
Year Published:

Cataloging Information

Extreme Fire Behavior
Fire Effects
Fire History
Climate and Fire Regime Change

NRFSN number: 26694
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Large forest fires have far-reaching impacts on the environment, human health, infrastructure and the economy. Forest fires become large when all forest types across a landscape are dry enough to burn. Mesic forests are the slowest to dry and can act as a barrier to fire growth when they are too wet to burn. Therefore, identifying the factors influencing fire occurrence in mesic forests is important for gauging fire risk across large landscapes. We quantified the key factors influencing the likelihood that an active wildfire would propagate through mesic forest. We analysed 35 large forest fires (> 2500 ha) that occurred in Victoria, Australia where mesic and drier eucalypt forests are interspersed across mountainous terrain. We used a random forest model to evaluate 15 meteorological, topographic and disturbance variables as potential predictors of fire occurrence. These variables were extracted for points within burnt and unburnt patches of mesic forest. The likelihood of an active wildfire spreading through mesic forest increased by 65 % as vapour pressure deficit (VPD, i.e., atmospheric dryness) rose from 2.5 to 7 kPa. Other variables had substantially less influence (< 20 % change in fire occurrence) and their effects were further reduced when VPD was very high (> 6.5 kPa). Mesic forests were less likely to burn in areas with lower aridity, shallower slopes, and more sheltered topographic positions. Mesic forests 13–15 years following stand-replacing disturbance had 6 % higher chance of burning than long undisturbed forests (50 years post-disturbance). Overall, we show that topography and disturbance history cannot substantially counter the effects of high VPD. Therefore, the effectiveness of mesic forest as a barrier to the development of large forest fires is weakening as the climate warms. Our analysis also identifies areas less likely to burn, even under high VPD conditions. These areas could be prioritised as wildfire refugia.


Cawson JG, Collins L, Parks SA, Nolan RH, and Penman TD. 2024. Atmospheric dryness removes barriers to the development of large forest fires. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology
Volume 350, 1 May 2024, 109990.

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