Warming enabled upslope advance in western US forest fires

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Here, we focus on the elevational distribution of forest fires in mountainous ecoregions of the western United States and show the largest increase rates in burned area above 2,500 m during 1984 to 2017. Furthermore, we how that high-elevation fires advanced upslope with a median cumulative change of 252 m (−107 to 656 m; 95% CI) in 34 y across studied ecoregions. We also document a strong interannual relationship between high-elevation fires and warm season vapor pressure deficit (VPD). The upslope advance of fires is consistent with observed warming reflected by a median upslope drift of VPD isolines of 295 m (59 to 704 m; 95% CI) during 1984 to 2017. These findings allow us to estimate that recent climate trends reduced the high-elevation flammability barrier and enabled fires in an additional 11% of western forests. Limited influences of fire management practices and longer fire-return intervals in these montane mesic systems suggest these changes are largely a byproduct of climate warming. Further weakening in the high-elevation flammability barrier with continued warming has the potential to transform montane fire regimes with numerous implications for ecosystems and watersheds.

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