Factors influencing the formation of unburned forest islands within the perimeter of a large forest fire

Rosa Maria Román-Cuesta, Marc Gracia, Javier Retana

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60 Citations (Scopus)


Large forest fires have recently increased in frequency and severity in many ecosystems. Due to the heterogeneity in fuels, weather and topography, these large fires tend to form unburned islands of vegetation. This study focuses on a large forest fire that occurred in north-eastern Spain in 1998, which left large areas of unburned vegetation within its perimeter. Based on a satellite post-fire severity map we searched for the relative influence of biotic and abiotic factors leading to unburned island formation. We divided the area of the fire into individual units we called "slopes" which were meant to separate the differential microclimatic effects of contrasted aspects. The number of unburned islands and their areas were related to 12 variables that influence their formation (i.e. land cover composition, aspect, steepness, forest structure, two landscape indices and weather variables). We hypothesized that unburned vegetation islands would concentrate on northern aspects, in less flammable forests (i.e. broadleaf species) and higher fragmentation to interrupt the advance of fire. While north and western aspects did have a higher presence of unburned vegetation islands, our study suggests greater presence of islands in slopes that are larger (i.e. more continuous areas with relatively homogeneous aspect), with greater proportions of forest cover, with higher wood volumes and with lower proportions of broadleaf species. Climate also played a role, with relative humidity and wind speed positively and negatively correlated to island formation, respectively. Unburned vegetation was more frequent on slopes with lower diversity of land covers and higher dominance of one land cover in the slope. Since slopes with only one land cover (i.e. forests) had more islands than slopes with multiple cover types, we infer that under severe meteorological conditions, fragmented forests can be more affected by wind and by water stress, thus burning more readily than forests that are protected from this edge phenomenon. These results would reinforce forest management strategies that avoid linear features (fire-lines and fire-breaks), to enhance fuel treatments that focus on areas and minimize fragmentation. © 2009 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71-80
JournalForest Ecology and Management
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jun 2009


  • Fuels
  • Large forest fires
  • Mediterranean forests
  • Topography
  • Unburned patches
  • Vegetation islands


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