In western North America beginning in the late 19th century, fire suppression and other factors resulted in dense ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forests that are now prone to high severity wildfire, insect attack, and root diseases. Thinning and prescribed fire are commonly used to remove small trees, fire-intolerant tree species, and shrubs, and to reduce surface and aerial fuels. These treatments can be effective at lowering future fire severity, but prescribed burns must be periodically repeated to maintain favorable conditions and are feasible only outside the historical summer wildfire season. This study examines tree growth and mortality associated with spring and fall burning repeated at five (5 yr) and fifteen-year (15 yr) intervals in six previously thinned ponderosa pine stands in the southern Blue Mountain Ecoregion near Burns, Oregon, USA. Each stand consisted of an unburned control, and four season-by-burn interval treatments: spring 5 yr, spring 15 yr, fall 5 yr, and fall 15 yr. Burning was initiated in fall 1997 and spring 1998. Pine height and diameter growth was evaluated in 2013, 15 years following initial treatment. Mortality was assessed annually from 2002 to 2017, when these stands experienced severe defoliation from pine butterfly (PB, Neophasia menapia), followed by a moderate outbreak of western pine beetle (WPB, Dendroctonus brevicomis), allowing us to examine resistance to these disturbances. Pine in the 5 yr fall treatments added more diameter than spring 15 yr and marginally more than spring 5 yr, while fall 15 yr added marginally more diameter than spring 15 yr. In addition, the fall 5 yr treatments had lower mortality associated with prescribed fire, PB, WPB, Ips spp., red turpentine beetle (RTB, D. valens), and mountain pine beetle (MPB, D. ponderosae), but the effect was not always significant. Annosus root disease (ARD, caused by Heterobasidion irregulare) and black stain root disease (BSRD, caused by Leptographium wagneri var. ponderosum) appear to be unaffected by burning. However, BSRD occurrence dramatically declined in all treatments, probably a result of thinning prior to study initiation. Results from this study demonstrate that repeated fall burning, especially at 5-year intervals, improves ponderosa pine diameter growth and may provide resistance to future biotic and abiotic disturbances while spring burning, regardless of frequency, does not.
Tree spatial patterns in dry coniferous forests of the western United States, and analogous ecosystems globally, were historically aggregated, comprising a mixture of single trees and groups of trees. Modern forests, in contrast, are generally more homogeneous and overstocked than their historical counterparts. As these modern forests lack regular fire, pattern formation and maintenance is generally attributed to fire. Accordingly, fires in modern forests may not yield historically analogous patterns. However, direct observations on how selective tree mortality among pre‐existing forest structure shapes tree spatial patterns is limited. In this study, we (a) simulated fires in historical and contemporary counterpart plots in a Sierra Nevadan mixed‐conifer forest, (b) estimated tree mortality, and (c) examined tree spatial patterns of live trees before and after fire, and of fire‐killed trees. Tree mortality in the historical period was clustered and density‐dependent, because trees were aggregated and segregated by tree size before fire. Thus, fires maintained an aggregated distribution of tree groups. Tree mortality in the contemporary period was widespread, except for dispersed large trees, because most trees were a part of large, interconnected tree groups. Thus, postfire tree patterns were more uniform and devoid of moderately sized tree groups. Postfire tree patterns in the historical period, unlike the contemporary period, were within the historical range of variability identified for the western United States. This divergence suggests that decades of forest dynamics without significant disturbances have altered the historical means of pyric pattern formation. Our results suggest that ecological silvicultural treatments, such as forest restoration thinnings, which emulate qualities of historical forests may facilitate the reintroduction of fire as a means to reinforce forest structural heterogeneity.
Accounting for externalities generated by fire spread is necessary for managing fire risk on landscapes with multiple owners. In this paper, we determine the optimal management of a synthetic landscape parameterized to represent the ecological conditions of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) plantations in southwest Oregon. The problem is formulated as a dynamic game, where each agent maximizes their own objective without considering the welfare of the other agents. We demonstrate a method for incorporating spatial information and externalities into a dynamic optimization process. A machine-learning technique, approximate dynamic programming, is applied to determine the optimal timing and location of fuel treatments and timber harvests for each agent. The value functions we estimate explicitly account for the spatial interactions that generate fire risk. They provide a way to model the expected benefits, costs, and externalities associated with management actions that have uncertain consequences in multiple locations. The method we demonstrate is applied to analyze the effect of landscape fragmentation on landowner welfare and ecological outcomes.
Study Implications: This research builds on several important ideas for forest management. Fire risk for any particular stand on a landscape is a function of vegetation conditions across the entire landscape. Landowners who wish to achieve a management objective that is affected by fire risk need to account for the risk generated by broader landscape conditions. This work expands on a tractable model to account for the spatial interactions generated by fire spread that affect the optimal timing and spatial location of timber harvest and fuel treatments. In this paper, we demonstrate that optimal behavior changes when there are multiple landowners. On a sufficiently fragmented landscape, one landowner’s actions can create additional risk for their neighbors. This work suggests that policy interventions to incentivize risk reducing behavior may be appropriate on sufficiently fragmented landscapes.
The Blue Mountains Adaptation Partnership (BMAP) was established to increase climate change awareness, assess vulnerability to climate change, and develop science-based adaptation strategies for national forest lands in the Blue Mountains region of northeast Oregon and southeast Washington (USA). The BMAP process included (1) development of a science-management partnership, (2) a vulnerability assessment of the effects of climate change on natural resources and infrastructure, (3) development of adaptation options that will help reduce negative effects of climate change and assist the transition of biological systems and management to a changing climate, and (4) ongoing dialogue and activities related to climate change in the Blue Mountains region. This special issue of Climate Services describes social context and climate change vulnerability assessments for water use and infrastructure, vegetation, and riparian ecosystems of the Blue Mountains region, as well as adaptation options for natural resource management. This manuscript introduces the special issue, describing the management, biogeographic, and climatic context for the Blue Mountains region; the climate change vulnerability assessment and adaptation process used in BMAP; and the potential applications of the information described in the special issue. Although the institutional focus of information in the special issue is U.S. Forest Service lands (Malheur, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests), the broader social context and adaptation options should be applicable to other lands throughout this region and the Pacific Northwest.
Following a wildfire, regeneration to forest can take decades to centuries and is no longer assured in many western U.S. environments given escalating wildfire severity and warming trends. After large fire years, managers prioritize where to allocate scarce planting resources, often with limited information on the factors that drive successful forest establishment. Where occurring, long-term effects of postfire salvage operations can increase uncertainty of establishment. Here, we collected field data on postfire regeneration patterns within 13- to 28-yr-old burned patches in eastern Washington State. Across 248 plots, we sampled tree stems <4 m height using a factorial design that considered (1) fire severity, moderate vs. high severity; (2) salvage harvesting, salvaged vs. no management; and (3) potential vegetation type (PVT), sample resides in a dry, moist, or cold mixed-conifer forest environment. We found that regeneration was abundant throughout the study region, with a median of 4414 (IQR 19,618) stems/ha across all plots. Only 15% of plots fell below minimum timber production stocking standards (350 trees/ha), and <2% of plots were unstocked. Densities were generally highest in high-severity patches and following salvage harvesting, although high variability among plots and across sites led to variable significance for these factors. Post hoc analyses suggested that mild postfire weather conditions may have reduced water stress on tree establishment and early growth, contributing to overall high stem densities. Douglas fir was the most abundant species, particularly in moderate-severity patches, followed by ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, western larch, and Engelmann spruce. Generalized additive models (GAMs) revealed species-level climatic tolerances and seed dispersal limits that portend future challenges to regeneration with expected future climate warming and increased fire activity. Postfire regeneration will occur on sites with adequate seed sources within their climatic tolerances.
Biomass mapping is used in variety of applications including carbon assessments, emission inventories, and wildland fire and fuel planning. Single values are often applied to individual pixels to represent biomass of classified vegetation, but each biomass estimate has associated uncertainty that is generally not acknowledged nor quantified. In this study, we developed a geospatial database of wildland fuel biomass values to characterize the inherent variability within and across major vegetation types of the United States and Canada. For vegetation types that had sufficient quantification of biomass by fuel type (e.g., canopy, shrub, herbaceous, fine downed wood, coarse downed wood, and organic soil layers), we developed empirical distribution estimates. Based on available data, fitted distributions will be useful for informing the first‐generation biomass mapping that incorporates variability in loading by vegetation and fuel type and to evaluate potential errors in point estimates given in current map products. Because combustible biomass is a common input in fire and smoke models, variability estimated for fitted distributions can be used to inform data input uncertainty in predictions of wildland fuel consumption and emissions and to provide stochastic inputs of biomass to ensemble simulation models.
With longer and more severe fire seasons predicted, the incidence and extent of fires are expected to increase in western North America. As more area is burned, past wildfires may influence the spread and burn severity of subsequent fires, with implications for ecosystem resilience and fire management. We examined how previous burn severity, topography, vegetation, and weather influenced burn severity on four wildfires, two in Idaho, one in Washington, and one in British Columbia. These were large fire events, together burning 330 000 ha and cost $165 million USD in fire suppression expenditures. Collectively, these four study fires reburned over 50 000 ha previously burned between 1984 and 2006. We used sequential autoregression to analyze how past fires, topography, vegetation, and weather influenced burn severity. We found that areas burned in the last three decades, at any severity, had significantly lower severity in the subsequent fire. Final models included maximum temperature, vegetation cover type, slope, and elevation as common predictors. Across all study fires and burning conditions within them, burn severity was reduced in previously burned areas, suggesting that burned landscapes mitigate subsequent fire effects even with the extreme fire weather under which these fires burned.
Fire exclusion has dramatically altered historically fire adapted forests across western North America. In response, forest managers reduce forest fuels with mechanical thinning and/or prescribed burning to alter fire behavior, with additional objectives of restoring forest composition, structure, and ecosystem processes. There has been extensive research on the effects of fuel reduction and restoration treatments on trees, fuels, regeneration, and fire behavior; but less is known about how these treatments influence understory vegetation, which contains the majority of vascular plant diversity in many dry conifer forests. Of particular interest is how understory vegetation may respond to the season and interval of prescribed burning. The season and interval of prescribed burning is often determined by operational constraints rather than historical fire regimes, potentially resulting in fire conditions and burn intervals to which native plants are poorly adapted. In this study, we examined how understory vegetation has responded to season and interval of prescribed burning in ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forests in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon, USA. Using over a decade (2002–2015) of understory vegetation data collected in stands with different intervals (5 versus 15 year) and seasons (spring versus fall) of prescribed burning, we quantified how season and interval of prescribed burning has influenced understory vegetation compositional trajectories and indicator species over time. Season of prescribed burning resulted in different understory communities and distinct trajectories of understory composition over time, but interval of burning did not. Indicator species analysis suggests fall burning is facilitating early seral species, with native annual forbs displaying ephemeral responses to frequent burning, while invasive cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) increased in abundance and frequency across all treatments over time. These findings indicate that understory vegetation in these ecosystems are sensitive to seasonality of burning, but the responses are subtle. Our findings suggest season and interval of prescribed burning used in this study do not result in large changes in understory vegetation community composition, a key consideration as land managers increase the pace and scale of prescribed fire in these forests.
Questions: A recently introduced non-native annual grass, Ventenata dubia, is challenging previous conceptions of community resistance in forest mosaic communities in the Inland Northwest. However, little is known of the drivers and potential ecological impacts of this rapidly expanding species. Here we (1) identify abiotic and biotic habitat characteristics associated with the V. dubia invasion and examine how these differ between V. dubia and other problematic non-native annual grasses, Bromus tectorum and Taeniatherum caput-medusae; and (2) determine how burning influences relationships between V. dubia and plant community composition and structure to address potential impacts on Inland Northwest forest mosaic communities.
Location: Blue Mountains of the Inland Northwest, USA.
Methods: We measured environmental and plant community characteristics in 110 recently burned and nearby unburned plots. Plots were stratified to capture a range of V. dubia cover, elevations, biophysical classes, and fire severities. We investigated relationships between V. dubia, wildfire, environmental, and plant community characteristics using non-metric multidimensional scaling and linear regressions.
Results: Ventenata dubia was most abundant in sparsely vegetated, basalt-derived rocky scablands interspersed throughout the forested landscape. Plant communities most heavily invaded by V. dubia were largely uninvaded by other non-native annual grasses. Ventenata dubia was abundant in both unburned and burned areas, but negative relationships between V. dubia cover and community diversity were stronger in burned plots, where keystone sagebrush species were largely absent after fire.
Conclusions: Ventenata dubia is expanding the overall invasion footprint into previously uninvaded communities. Burning may exacerbate negative relationships between V. dubia and species richness, evenness, and functional diversity, including in communities that historically rarely burned. Understanding the drivers and impacts of the V. dubia invasion and recognizing how these differ from other annual grass invasions may provide insight into mechanisms of community invasibility, grass-fire feedbacks, and aid the development of species-specific management plans.