Understanding shifts in wildfire regimes as emergent threshold phenomena

Richard D. Zinck, Mercedes Pascual, Volker Grimm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Ecosystems driven by wildfire regimes are characterized by fire size distributions resembling power laws. Existing models produce power laws, but their predicted exponents are too high and fail to capture the exponent's variation with geographic region. Here we present a minimal model of fire dynamics that describes fire spread as a stochastic birth-death process, analogous to stochastic population growth or disease spread and incorporating memory effects from previous fires. The model reproduces multiple regional patterns in fire regimes and allows us to classify different regions in terms of their proximity to a critical threshold. Transitions across this critical threshold imply abrupt and pronounced increases in average fire size. The model predicts that large regions in Canada are currently close to this transition and might be driven beyond the threshold in the future. We illustrate this point by analyzing the time series for large fires (1199 ha) from the Canadian Boreal Plains, found to have shifted from a subcritical regime to a critical regime in the recent past. By contrast to its predecessor, the model also suggests that a critical transition, and not self-organized criticality, underlies forest fire dynamics, with implications for other ecological systems exhibiting power-law-like patterns, in particular for their sensitivity to environmental change and control efforts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E150-E161
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2011


  • Climate change
  • Criticality
  • Forest fire model
  • Power-law scalings
  • Regime shift
  • Self-organized criticality
  • Threshold phenomena
  • Wildfire

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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