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Previous fires moderate burn severity of subsequent wildland fires in two large western US wilderness areas

Author(s): Sean A. Parks, Carol Miller, Cara R. Nelson, Zachary A. Holden
Year Published: 2014

Wildland fire is an important natural process in many ecosystems. However, fire exclusion has reduced frequency of fire and area burned in many dry forest types, which may affect vegetation structure and composition, and potential fire behavior. In forests of the western U.S., these effects pose a challenge for fire and land managers who seek to restore the ecological process of fire to ecosystems. Recent research suggests that landscapes with unaltered fire regimes are more 'self-regulating' than those that have experienced fire-regime shifts; in self-regulating systems, fire size and severity are moderated by the effect of previous fire. To determine if burn severity is moderated in areas that recently burned, we analyzed 117 wildland fires in 2 wilderness areas in the western U.S. that have experienced substantial recent fire activity. Burn severity was measured using a Landsat satellite-based metric at a 30-m resolution. We evaluated (1) whether pixels that burned at least twice since 1984 experienced lower burn severity than pixels that burned once, (2) the relationship between burn severity and fire history, pre-fire vegetation, and topography, and (3) how the moderating effect of a previous fire decays with time. Results show burn severity is significantly lower in areas that have recently burned compared to areas that have not. This effect is still evident at around 22 years between wildland fire events. Results further indicate that burn severity generally increases with time since and severity of previous wildfire. These findings may assist land managers to anticipate the consequences of allowing fires to burn and provide rationale for using wildfire as a 'fuel treatment'.

Citation: Parks, Sean A.; Miller, Carol L.; Nelson, Cara R.; Holden, Zachary A. 2014. Previous fires moderate burn severity of subsequent wildland fires in two large western US wilderness areas. Ecosystems. 17(1): 29-42.
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - First Order, Fire Severity, Fire History
Ecosystem(s): Alpine forest/krummholz, Subalpine wet spruce-fir forest, Subalpine dry spruce-fir forest, Montane wet mixed-conifer forest, Montane dry mixed-conifer forest, Ponderosa pine woodland/savanna
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 12051
FRAMES RCS number: 16570
Record updated: Dec 7, 2017