The role of fire in global forest loss dynamics

Dave van Wees*, Guido R. van der Werf, James T. Randerson, Niels Andela, Yang Chen, Douglas C. Morton

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Fires, among other forms of natural and anthropogenic disturbance, play a central role in regulating the location, composition and biomass of forests. Understanding the role of fire in global forest loss is crucial in constraining land-use change emissions and the global carbon cycle. We analysed the relationship between forest loss and fire at 500 m resolution based on satellite-derived data for the 2003–2018 period. Satellite fire data included burned area and active fire detections, to best account for large and small fires, respectively. We found that, on average, 38 ± 9% (± range) of global forest loss was associated with fire, and this fraction remained relatively stable throughout the study period. However, the fraction of fire-related forest loss varied substantially on a regional basis, and showed statistically significant trends in key tropical forest areas. Decreases in the fraction of fire-related forest loss were found where deforestation peaked early in our study period, including the Amazon and Indonesia while increases were found for tropical forests in Africa. The inclusion of active fire detections accounted for 41%, on average, of the total fire-related forest loss, with larger contributions in small clearings in interior tropical forests and human-dominated landscapes. Comparison to higher-resolution fire data with resolutions of 375 and 20 m indicated that commission errors due to coarse resolution fire data largely balanced out omission errors due to missed small fire detections for regional to continental-scale estimates of fire-related forest loss. Besides an improved understanding of forest dynamics, these findings may help to refine and separate fire-related and non-fire-related land-use change emissions in forested ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2377-2391
Number of pages15
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number11
Early online date11 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We appreciate the help of Wilfrid Schroeder in providing the VIIRS 375 m along‐scan and along‐track pixel dimensions. We appreciate the help of Peter Potapov in clarifying how methodological changes in the production of the GFC forest loss data over time limit their use for trend analysis. We appreciate the help of Zhihua Liu for providing the scripts and data that enabled us to compare our results to those from Liu et al. ( 2019 ) in full detail. This research has been supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO; Vici scheme research programme, no. 016.160.324). J.T. Randerson, N. Andela, Y. Chen and D.C. Morton acknowledge funding support from NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System (grant 80NSSC18K0179). The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Global Change Biology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • active fires
  • burned area
  • deforestation
  • fire
  • forest loss
  • satellite data
  • tree mortality


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