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Many important classes of surface reactions exhibit both high heats of reaction and large, positive activation energies. In addition, many surface reactions often occur in thermally isolated environments. As a result, significant autothermic effects are possible. In part I of this article, a generalized model of these effects is presented which describes the enhancement in reaction rate as a function of activation energy, bulk temperature, and a parameter termed the characteristic temperature. Reactant concentration and reaction order effects are also considered. Part II of this work presents the application of this model to numerous experimental plasma etching data.