Prehistoric fire area and emissions from California's forests, woodlands, shrublands, and grasslands
Document Type: Journal Article
Author(s): S. L. Stephens; R. E. Martin; N. E. Clinton
Publication Year: 2007

Cataloging Information

  • Abies magnifica
  • air quality
  • air quality
  • air resources
  • carbon
  • carbon
  • chaparral
  • coniferous forests
  • crowns
  • evergreens
  • fire exclusion
  • fire exclusion
  • fire frequency
  • fire management
  • fire policy
  • fire regime
  • fire regimes
  • fire rotation
  • fire size
  • fire suppression
  • fire suppression
  • forest management
  • grasslands
  • histories
  • lightning caused fires
  • litter
  • mountains
  • Native Americans
  • particulates
  • particulates
  • Pinus contorta
  • Pinus ponderosa
  • prehistoric fires
  • Sequoia sempervirens
  • shrublands
  • suppression
  • vegetation surveys
  • wildfire
  • wildfires
Record Maintained By:
Record Last Modified: June 1, 2018
FRAMES Record Number: 46785
Tall Timbers Record Number: 22591
TTRS Location Status: In-file
TTRS Call Number: Fire File
TTRS Abstract Status: Okay, Fair use, Reproduced by permission

This bibliographic record was either created or modified by the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy and is provided without charge to promote research and education in Fire Ecology. The E.V. Komarek Fire Ecology Database is the intellectual property of the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.


In the majority of US political settings wildland fire is still discussed as a negative force. Lacking from current wildfire discussions are estimates of the spatial extent of fire and their resultant emissions before the influences of Euro-American settlement and this is the focus of this work. We summarize the literature on fire history (fire rotation and fire return intervals) and past Native American burning practices to estimate past fire occurrence by vegetation type. Once past fire intervals were established they were divided into the area of each corresponding vegetation type to arrive at estimates of area burned annually. Finally, the First Order Fire Effects Model was used to estimate emissions. Approximately 1.8 million ha burned annually in California prehistorically (pre 1800). Our estimate of prehistoric annual area burned in California is 88% of the total annual wildfire area in the entire US during a decade (1994-2004) characterized as ''extreme'' regarding wildfires. The idea that US wildfire area of approximately two million ha annually is extreme is certainly a 20th or 21st century perspective. Skies were likely smoky much of the summer and fall in California during the prehistoric period. Increasing the spatial extent of fire in California is an important management objective. The best methods to significantly increase the area burned is to increase the use of wildland fire use (WFU) and appropriate management response (AMR) suppression fire in remote areas. Political support for increased use of WFU and AMR needs to occur at local, state, and federal levels because increasing the spatial scale of fire will increase smoke and inevitability, a few WFU or AMR fires will escape their predefined boundaries. © 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Stephens, S. L., R. E. Martin, and N. E. Clinton. 2007. Prehistoric fire area and emissions from California's forests, woodlands, shrublands, and grasslands. Forest Ecology and Management, v. 251, no. 3, p. 205-216. 10.1016/j.foreco.2007.06.005.