Dendroecological testing of the pyroclimatic hypothesis in the central Great Basin, Nevada, USA
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In the Great Basin region of western North America, records of past climate and wildfire variability are needed not only for fire use, but also for understanding the mechanisms behind the century‐long expansion of piñon‐juniper woodlands. The Mt. Irish area (Lincoln County, south‐eastern Nevada) is a remote mountain ecosystem on the hydrographic boundary between the Great Basin and the Colorado River Basin. Non‐scarred ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa C. Lawson var. scopulorum Engelm.) and single‐needle pinyons (Pinus monophylla Torr. & Frém.) were used to develop a tree‐ring reconstruction of drought (mean PDSI for May–July from NV Climate Division 3) from 1396 to 2003. A hypothetical fire regime was obtained from the PDSI reconstruction and from explicitly assumed relationships between climate and wildfire occurrence. A census of fire‐scarred trees was then sampled at the study area, and crossdated fire‐scar records were used to generate the fire history, independently of the pre‐existing pyroclimatic model. Out of 250 collected fire‐scar wood sections, 197 could be crossdated (about 89% from ponderosa pines), covered the period from 1146 to 2006, and contained 485 fire scars, 390 of which could be dated to a single year. Numerical summaries were computed for the period 1550–2006, when recorder trees ranged from 16 to 169, using a total of 360 fire scars on 176 sections. Up to 1860, the time of Euro‐American settlement, fires that scarred at least two trees were very frequent (minimum fire interval: 1 year, mean: 4, median: 2, Weibull median: 3, maximum: 19), while fires that scarred at least 10% of the recorder trees were relatively rare (minimum fire interval: 40 years, mean: 66, median: 50, Weibull median: 63, maximum: 123). Fire frequency remained high during the 1780–1840 period, when fire was reduced or absent in other areas of the western United States. Both the “expected” and the “observed” fire history showed lower fire frequency after Euro‐American settlement, which most likely displaced Native people and any deliberate use of fire, but did not introduce publicly organized suppression in the area. Therefore, less favorable climatic conditions, not post‐settlement fire management, were responsible for reduced wildfire occurrence in the modern era.
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