Climatic and topographic controls on patterns of fire in the southern and central Appalachian Mountains, USA Academic Article uri icon


  • Climate and topography are two important controls on spatial patterns of fire disturbance in forests globally, via their influence on fuel moisture and fuel production. To assess the influences of climate and topography on fire disturbance patterns in a temperate forest region, we analyzed the mapped perimeters of fires that burned during 1930-2003 in two national parks in the eastern United States. These were Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) in the southern Appalachian Mountains and Shenandoah National Park (SNP) in the central Appalachian Mountains. We conducted GIS analyses to assess trends in area burned under differing climatic conditions and across topographic gradients (elevation, slope position, and aspect). We developed a Classification and Regression Tree model in order to further explore the interactions between topography, climate, and fire. The results demonstrate that climate is a strong driver of both spatial and temporal patterns of wildfire. Fire was most prevalent in the drier SNP than the wetter GSMNP, and during drought years in both parks. Topography also influenced fire occurrence, with relatively dry south-facing aspects, ridges, and lower elevations burning most frequently. However, the strength of topographic trends varied according to the climatic context. Weaker topographic trends emerged in the drier SNP than GSMNP, and during low-PDSI (dry) years than high-PDSI (wet) years in both parks. The apparent influence of climate on the spatial patterning of fire suggests a more general concept, that disturbance-prone landscapes exhibit weaker fine-scale spatial patterning of disturbance than do less disturbance-prone landscapes. 2010 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.

published proceedings


author list (cited authors)

  • Flatley, W. T., Lafon, C. W., & Grissino-Mayer, H. D.

citation count

  • 42

complete list of authors

  • Flatley, William T||Lafon, Charles W||Grissino-Mayer, Henri D

publication date

  • February 2011