Multi-millennial fire history of the giant forest, Sequoia National Park, California, USA

Thomas W. Swetnam, Christopher H. Baisan, Anthony C. Caprio, Peter M. Brown, Ramzi Touchan, R. Scott Anderson, Douglas J. Hallett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

71 Scopus citations


Giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum [Lindl.] J. Buchholz) preserve a detailed history of fire within their annual rings. We developed a 3000 year chronology of fire events in one of the largest extant groves of ancient giant sequoias, the Giant Forest, by sampling and tree-ring dating fire scars and other fire-related indicators from 52 trees distributed over an area of about 350 ha. When all fire events were included in composite chronologies, the mean fire intervals (years between fires of any size) declined as a function of in-creasing spatial extent from tree, to group, to multiple groups, to grove scales: 15.5 yr (0.1 ha), 7.4 yr (1 ha.), 3.0 yr (70 ha), and 2.2 yr (350 ha), respectively. We interpreted wide-spread fires (i.e., fire events recorded on ≥2 trees, or ≥25% of all trees recording fires within composites) to have occurred in areas of 70 ha to 350 ha at mean intervals ranging from about 6 yr to 35 yr. We compared the annual, multi-decadal and centennial variations in Giant Forest fire frequency with those documented in tree-ring and charcoal-based fire chronologies from four other giant sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada, and with independent tree-ring-based reconstructions of summer drought and temperatures. The other giant sequoia fire histories (tree rings and charcoal-based) were significantly (P < 0.001) correlated with the Giant Forest fire frequency record and independent climate reconstructions, and confirm a maximum fire frequency during the warm and drought-prone period from 800 C.E. to 1300 C.E. (Common Era). This was the driest period of the past two millennia, and it may serve as an analog for warming and drying effects of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the next few decades. Sequoias can sustain very high fire frequencies, and historically they have done so during warm, dry times. We suggest that preparation of sequoia groves for anticipated warming may call for increasing the rate of prescribed burning in most parts of the Giant Forest.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)120-150
Number of pages31
JournalFire Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2009


  • Dendrochronology
  • Fire history
  • Giant forest
  • Giant sequoia
  • Sequoia national park

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)


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