Recent fire activity in the boreal eastern interior of North America
is below that of the past 2000 yr.
Justin Waito, Martin-Philippe Girardin, Jacques Tardif, France Conciatori, Yves Bergeron, Adam Ali.
The North American boreal forest has been developing since the end of the last glaciation
approximately 10,000 yr ago. With climate warming and human occupation, it is anticipated that fire danger,
ignition, and activity will be increasing, compromising forests’ benefits for generations to come. In this
study, we show, however, that a century of rapid climate changes and human densification has had the
opposite effect in the boreal eastern interior of the North American continent, reducing biomass burning to
values below two millennia of historical levels. A multi-millennial fire history was reconstructed for eight
forested landscapes from the Lake of the Woods Ecoregion (LWE) located at the boreal–prairie ecotone.
Fire history was reconstructed using a combination of archival (period 1920–2010), tree-ring (stand initiations
and fire scars: period 1690–2010), and lake sediment charcoal (2500 BP to present) records. The archival
record revealed recent large fires (>200 ha) in 1948, 1980, and 1988. An additional 19 fires were
identified by the fire-scar record. Fire events in 1805, 1840, 1863, and the 1890s were identified in numerous
locations around multiple lakes suggesting that they were of large extents. In accordance with the tree-ring
record, the charcoal accumulation rate (CHAR) peak record generally identified the major fires but tended
to lag from the tree-ring records by several decades. Within LWE, the long-term charcoal record revealed
that CHAR was higher for each lake in the earlier portion of the record including the warm Medieval
Climate Anomaly (AD 900 to AD 1000), followed by a progressive decrease toward the cool Little Ice
Age period. This decline was abruptly interrupted in the mid- to late 19th century with large synchronized
fires, also reported over western and central North America, and resumed approximately four decades
later. Fire disturbance level is today below the historical range, despite the accentuated climate warming.
Aging of the forest landscape may create biodiversity loss notably in fire-adapted species while at the same
time setting the tone for major fires in upcoming decades if no action is taken for managing fuels.