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Fire disturbance and forest structure in old-growth mixed conifer forests in the northern Sierra Nevada, California

Beaty, R. Matthew, Taylor, Alan H.
Journal of vegetation science 2007 v.18 no.6 pp. 879-890
age structure, coniferous forests, conifers, dendrochronology, drought, fire regime, forest fires, fuels (fire ecology), lakes, species diversity, stand structure, trees, California, Sierra Nevada (California)
Question: This study evaluates how fire regimes influence stand structure and dynamics in old-growth mixed conifer forests across a range of environmental settings.Location: A 2000-ha area of mixed conifer forest on the west shore of Lake Tahoe in the northern Sierra Nevada, California.Methods: We quantified the age, size, and spatial structure of trees in 12 mixed conifer stands distributed across major topographic gradients. Fire history was reconstructed in each stand using fire scar dendrochronology. The influence of fire on stand structure was assessed by comparing the fire history with the age, size, and spatial structure of trees in a stand.Results: There was significant variation in species composition among stands, but not in the size, age and spatial patterning of trees. Stands had multiple size and age classes with clusters of similar aged trees occurring at scales of 113 –– 254 m². The frequency and severity of fires was also similar, and stands burned with low to moderate severity in the dormant season on average every 9 –– 17 years. Most fires were not synchronized among stands except in very dry years. No fires have burned since ca. 1880.Conclusions: Fire and forest structure interact to perpetuate similar stand characteristics across a range of environmental settings. Fire occurrence is controlled primarily by spatial variation in fuel mosaics (e.g. patterns of abundance, fuel moisture, forest structure), but regional drought synchronizes fire in some years. Fire exclusion over the last 120 years has caused compositional and structural shifts in these mixed conifer forests.Nomenclature: Hickman (1993).