Climate, lightning ignitions, and fire severity in Yosemite National Park, California, USA

James A. Lutz, Jan W. Van Wagtendonk, Andrea E. Thode, Jay D. Miller, Jerry F. Franklin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

113 Scopus citations


Continental-scale studies of western North America have attributed recent increases in annual area burned and fire size to a warming climate, but these studies have focussed on large fires and have left the issues of fire severity and ignition frequency unaddressed. Lightning ignitions, any of which could burn a large area given appropriate conditions for fire spread, could be the first indication of more frequent fire. We examined the relationship between snowpack and the ignition and size of fires that occurred in Yosemite National Park, California (area 3027 km2), between 1984 and 2005. During this period, 1870 fires burned 77 718 ha. Decreased spring snowpack exponentially increased the number of lightning-ignited fires. Snowpack mediated lightning-ignited fires by decreasing the proportion of lightning strikes that caused lightning-ignited fires and through fewer lightning strikes in years with deep snowpack. We also quantified fire severity for the 103 fires >40 ha with satellite fire-severity indices using 23 years of Landsat Thematic Mapper data. The proportion of the landscape that burned at higher severities and the complexity of higher-severity burn patches increased with the log10 of annual area burned. Using one snowpack forecast, we project that the number of lightning-ignited fires will increase 19.1% by 2020 to 2049 and the annual area burned at high severity will increase 21.9%. Climate-induced decreases in snowpack and the concomitant increase in fire severity suggest that existing assumptions may be understated-fires may become more frequent and more severe.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)765-774
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Wildland Fire
Issue number7
StatePublished - 2009


  • Burn severity
  • Climate change
  • Climate variability
  • Fire regime attributes
  • Landscape flammability
  • Normalized burn ratio
  • Patch complexity
  • RdNBR
  • Sierra Nevada
  • Snow water equivalent
  • Snowpack

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Ecology


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