Warm winters can help wildfire recovery, as long as there’s enough rain

By Kat Kerlin

Using more than a decade’s worth of daily satellite images, researchers have determined ecosystems of South Africa’s Cape Floristic Region bounce back from wildfires much more quickly in warmer winter weather.

However, there is an important caveat for other areas with Mediterranean climates at high risk of fires, such as drought-stricken California: The rate of recovery also depends on sufficient rainfall, especially in summer.

Data from South Africa shows how climate influences recovery from wildfire and could be generally applied to similar regions in California and Australia. (Andrew Latimer/UC Davis)

Data from South Africa shows how climate influences recovery from wildfire and could be generally applied to similar regions in California and Australia. (Andrew Latimer/UC Davis)

The model developed by Yale, UC Davis and University of Connecticut could help predict which ecosystems are most vulnerable to climate change, according to the study published the week of July 6 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Findings could apply to California, Australia

The findings should also apply to the Mediterranean basin and places like California and Australia with similar climates.

“If you’re in an area where soil is poor or where there’s a drought, it slows down the regrowth of vegetation and makes it more vulnerable to fire that comes back,” said co-author Andrew Latimer, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences.

Lessons for coastal California

Latimer said that, for California, the study is most applicable to the state’s coastal and chaparral areas, such as Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. There, the coastal vegetation is similar to that seen in the South African shrubland, and some areas have been experiencing more fire because of accidental ignitions.

“This area of South Africa is rich in biodiversity, and we noticed that some areas recover more quickly from fires than others,” said lead author Adam Wilson, a postdoctoral researcher at Yale at the time of the study, and now an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo. “This model helps explain why that is.”

What’s ‘under the hood’

The NASA satellite captured images of the Cape Floristic Region on Africa’s southern tip with a resolution of 500 meters. Over more than a decade, the images showed that western areas of the region recovered more slowly from fires than those in the east. The model developed by Wilson and his team revealed the two most important variables for rates of recovery were average temperature in winter and rainfall in the summer.

“The study represents a methodological advance in our ability to infer what’s going on ‘under the hood’ in ecosystems using data collected from space,” Wilson said.

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