The changing landscape of wildfire: burn pattern trends and implications for California’s yellow pine and mixed conifer forests
Wildfire spatial patterns drive ecological processes including vegetation succession and wildlife community dynamics. Such patterns may be changing due to fire suppression policies and climate change, making characterization of trends in post-fire mosaics important for understanding and managing fire-prone ecosystems.
For wildfires in California’s yellow pine and mixed-conifer forests, spatial pattern trends of two components of the post-fire severity matrix were assessed for 1984–2015: (1) unchanged or very low-severity and (2) high-severity, which represent remnant forest and stand-replacing fire, respectively. Trends were evaluated for metrics of total and proportional burned area, shape complexity, aggregation, and core area. Additionally, comparisons were made between management units where fire suppression is commonly practiced and those with a history of managing wildfire for ecological/resource benefits.
Unchanged or very low-severity area per fire decreased proportionally through time, and became increasingly fragmented. High-severity area and core area increased on average across most of California, with the high-severity component also becoming simpler in shape in the Sierra Nevada. Compared to suppression units, managed wildfire units lack an increase in high-severity area, have less aggregated post-fire mosaics, and more high-severity spatial complexity.
Documented changes in severity patterns have cascading ecological effects including increased vegetation type conversion risk, habitat availability shifts, and remnant forest fragmentation. These changes likely benefit early-seral-associated species at the expense of mature closed-canopy forest-associated species. Managed wildfire appears to moderate some effects of fire suppression, and may help buy time for ecosystems and managers to respond to a changing climate.
KeywordsFire ecology Burn severity Landscape heterogeneity Disturbance Patch dynamics Climate change
We thank two anonymous reviewers, along with Mark Schwartz and Malcolm North for providing critiques of early versions of this article, and Jay Miller for assistance in accessing burn severity data. Funding was provided by the United States Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region, and the University of California, Davis.
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