Forest structure and regeneration responses 15 years after wildfire in a ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer ecotone, Arizona, USA

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Abstract

Background: Accelerated vegetation changes are predicted for Southwestern forests due to changing disturbance regimes and climate. The 2001 Leroux Fire burned across a landscape with pre-existing permanent plots during one of the most extreme drought periods over the last few decades, providing a rare opportunity to assess wildfire −drought interactions. The wildfire burned with variable severity across a mountainous transition zone. We took advantage of this opportunity to re-measure plots originally established in 2000, and extend the temporal scale of response data to 15 years post-fire. Results: Although fire severity classification adequately described initial effects, tree mortality was indistinguishable among the burned plots between 2002 and 2016, ranging from 38 to 41%. Our results indicated extensive secondary tree mortality that nearly equaled initial mortality in three of four fire severity classes. Mortality from 2002 to 2016 varied by species, with quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.) experiencing disproportionately higher mortality (46 to 62% tree loss) than other species across all fire severities. Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Engelm.) mortality (34% tree loss) between 2002 and 2016 on unburned plots, along with similar mortality on moderate-and high-severity plots, show that even the most drought-tolerant species on our site was affected by exceptionally warm and dry conditions. Regeneration immediately post fire was dominated by aspen sprouts across all fire severities. By 2016, however, aspen densities were lower than pre-fire observations in unburned, moderate-and high-severity plots, and conifer seedlings primarily established in unburned plots. Ponderosa pine seedlings established between 2011 and 2016 and were observed in only one unburned plot in 2016. The lack of pine regeneration and the relatively small size of high-severity patches in the Leroux Fire suggest that factors other than seed dispersal limited ponderosa pine regeneration. Conclusions: Substantial mortality (68% tree loss) and 39% basal area reduction over the 15-year study, plus variable aspen regeneration and sparse conifer regeneration, led to non-forested conditions and isolated aspen stands. Although small in size, the Leroux Fire provided an example of continuing post-fire forest community changes driven by temperature increases and drought. Thus, wildfire and climate change interactions may accelerate shifts in structure and composition in Southwest forest ecosystems.

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Stoddard, M. T., Huffman, D. W., Fulé, P. Z., Crouse, J. E., & Meador, A. J. S. (2018). Forest structure and regeneration responses 15 years after wildfire in a ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer ecotone, Arizona, USA. Fire Ecology, 14(2), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s42408-018-0011-y

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