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First-entry wildfires can create opening and tree clump patterns characteristic of resilient forests

Kane, Van R., Bartl-Geller, Bryce N., North, Malcom P., Kane, Jonathan T., Lydersen, Jamie M., Jeronimo, Sean M.A., Collins, Brandon M., Monika Moskal, L.
Forest ecology and management 2019 v.454 pp. 117659
burn severity, canopy gaps, drought, fire suppression, fire weather, forests, humans, infrastructure, insects, lidar, meadows, mortality, national parks, overstory, prescribed burning, risk, rivers, timber management, trees, wilderness, wildfires, Tahoe National Forest, Western United States
A century of fire suppression has left fire-dependent forests of the western United States increasingly vulnerable to wildfire, drought, and insects. Forest managers are trying to improve resilience using treatments such as mechanical thinning and prescribed fire; however, operational and resource constraints limit treatments to a fraction of the needed area each year. An alternative is to let wildfires burn under less-than-extreme fire weather where human lives and infrastructure are not at risk. We examined post-fire forest structure using airborne lidar data to determine whether a single wildland fire following an extended fire-free period could produce forest structures resembling fire-resilient historical conditions. We studied forest structures resulting from these “first-entry” fires in a forest with a history of timber management (2008 American River Complex Fires, Tahoe National Forest) and in a wilderness area (2009 Big Meadow Fire, Yosemite National Park). We compared the results of these first-entry fires with nearby reference areas that had experienced 2+ fires that burned predominately at low- and moderate-severity. We identified visible overstory trees from the lidar data and examined their patterns in terms of individuals, tree clumps, and openings. We found that moderate-severity fire effects in these first-entry fires produced similar patterns to the reference areas with area in openings at approximately 40% and trees predominately in small (2 to 4 trees) and medium (5–9 trees) clumps High-severity fire produced mortality likely to lead to large canopy openings that were historically uncharacteristic in these forests. As burn severity increased, the amount of the residual canopy area represented by taller trees (>16 m and especially >32 m) decreased, which could result from fires preferentially killing taller trees or from locations with taller trees more commonly experiencing lower burn severities. Our study suggests that first-entry fires allowed to burn under less-than-extreme conditions can reproduce spatial patterns resembling historical conditions resilient to fires and drought but possibly at the disproportionate expense of larger trees.