Major decline in fires in coniferous forests – reconstructing the phenomenon and seeking for the cause
Steep decline in forest fires about a century ago occurred in coniferous forests over large areas in North America and Fennoscandia. This poorly understood phenomenon has been explained by different factors in different regions. The objective of this study is to evaluate the validity of the four most commonly suggested causes of the decrease in forest fires: fire fighting, over-grazing, climate change and human influence. I compiled the available dendrochronological data and estimated the annually burned proportions of Pinus-dominated forests in four subcontinental regions during the past 500 years. These data were compared to the development of fire suppression, grazing pressure, climate and human livelihoods. The annually burned proportions declined over 90% in all studied regions. In three out of the four regions fires decreased decades before fire suppression began. Available drought data are annually well correlated with fires but could not explain the decrease of the level in annually burned areas. A rapid increase in the number of livestock occurred at the same time with the decrease in fires in the Western US but not in Fennoscandia. Hence, fire suppression in Central Fennoscandia and over-grazing in the Western US may have locally contributed to the reduction of burned areas. More general explanation is offered by human influence hypothesis: the majority of the past forest fires were probably caused by humans and the decrease in the annually burned areas was because of a decrease in human caused fires. This is in accordance with the old written records and forest fire statistics. The decrease in annually burned areas, both in Fennoscandia and the United States coincides with an economic and cultural transition from traditional livelihoods that are associated with high fire use to modern agriculture and forestry.
Received 14 June 2010 Accepted 4 March 2011 Published 31 December 2011