Fire in the Southern Appalachians: Fuels, Stand Structure and Oaks

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This study addresses knowledge gaps in our understanding of the ecological effects of prescribed fire on eastern oak forests by examining the effects of frequent and infrequent prescribed fire on stand structure, response of seedlings, recruitment, oak seedling establishment, health of residual trees, and fuels.

We initiated a small study with limited funding from the University of Kentucky and the US Forest Service beginning in 1995. Funding from the Joint Fire Science Program in 2002 and 2004 led to a more comprehensive and long-term study.

New publication: Alterations to the fuel bed after single and repeated prescribed fires in an Appalachian hardwood forest

Prescribed fire, letter formatPrescribed Fire: An Ancient Practice for Today's Forest: 12x18 brochure format (folds to 4x9) pdf file or 10-page letter sized format pdf file


Throughout the southern Appalachian region and beyond, the documented failure of oak forests to regenerate themselves has been attributed, at least in part, to the lack of fire in the last half century. Managers responsible for maintaining the diversity of southern Appalachian forests are increasingly turning to prescribed fire as the management tool of choice in oak dominated forests. The decision to use fire with increasing frequency and spatial extent is based, in part, on an emerging sense of the prehistoric significance of fire in this landscape, and its potential to control the proliferation of fire-sensitive competitors of oak in contemporary forests. While it is well documented that fire has been an important ecological force in southern Appalachian forests for a very long time, data showing that prescribed fire effectively promotes oak regeneration is mixed.

Specific fire management objectives in the Daniel Boone National Forest (and throughout the broader Appalachian hardwood region) have been to reduce the understory and midstory proliferation of white pine, red maple, and other shade-tolerant species in forest stands dominated by oak in the overstory to try to promote oak regeneration. Managers on the DBNF have been collaborating with researchers at the University of Kentucky since 1995 to develop an understanding of the effects of management burning on the ecology of these sites. This collaboration has been very successful, both in producing peer-reviewed scientific research on the ecological effects of fire and in informing managers of the outcomes of prescribed fire management.

Long-term studies of this kind are rare, and therefore valuable for understanding the ecological responses to fire, which are expected to unfold over decades


Specific research objectives are to:

  1. Characterize the spatial variability in light regime created by single and repeated fires, mediated through the effects of fire on stand structure
  2. Quantify the response of individual seedlings to different light environments, reflecting landscape-scale variability in light environment created by fire treatments. Seedling response will be measured by growth, survival, leaf area, specific leaf mass, and carbon allocation above- and below-ground.
  3. Quantify seedling recruitment and the growth and survival of seedlings recruited in response to fire management.
  4. Quantify 1-3 above (changes in stand structure, light regime, seedling response and seedling recruitment) on sites of differing qualities (intermediate, sub-xeric, sub-mesic).
  5. Use regeneration prediction models to compare the expected regeneration outcomes resulting from the prescribed burning treatments.
  6. Quantify the effects of frequent and infrequent prescribed fires on stem damage and mortality, crown health and forest productivity.
  7. Quantify fine and woody fuel consumption as a response to site quality, fire treatment and fire intensity.
  8. Assess landscape patterns of forest response to prescribed fire using remotely sensed imagery and analyze the relationships between image-derived indices and field-measured forest characteristics.
  9. Assess the capability of remotely sensed imagery for detecting forest structural attributes such as sub-canopy vegetation structure and coarse woody debris in landscapes with defined fire regimes.

In addition to the benefits that have accrued from the research components of this project, efforts directed at technology transfer have contributed significantly to the regional dialogue regarding the effectiveness of wildland fire for promoting oak regeneration in upland oak forests.