Most models project warmer and drier climates that will contribute to larger and more frequent wildfires. However, it remains unknown how repeated wildfires alter post-fire successional patterns and forest structure. Here, we test the hypothesis that the number of wildfires, as well as the order and severity of wildfire events interact to alter forest structure and vegetation recovery and implications for vegetation management. In 2014, we examined forest structure, composition, and tree regeneration in stands that burned 1-18 yr before a subsequent 2007 wildfire. Three important findings emerged: (1) Repeatedly burned forests had 15% less woody surface fuels and 31% lower tree seedling densities compared with forests that only experienced one recent wildfire. These repeatedly burned areas are recovering differently than sites burned once, which may lead to alternative ecosystem structure. (2) Order of burn severity (high followed by low severity compared with low followed by high severity) did influence forest characteristics. When low burn severity followed high, forests had 60% lower canopy closure and total basal area with 92% fewer tree seedlings than when high burn severity followed low. (3) Time between fires had no effect on most variables measured following the second fire except large woody fuels, canopy closure and tree seedling density. We conclude that repeatedly burned areas meet many vegetation management objectives of reduced fuel loads and moderate tree seedling densities. These differences in forest structure, composition, and tree regeneration have implications not only for the trajectories of these forests, but may reduce fire intensity and burn severity of subsequent wildfires and may be used in conjunction with future fire suppression tactics.
Stevens-Rumann, Camille S.; Morgan, Penelope. 2016. Repeated wildfires alter forest recovery of mixed-conifer ecosystems. Ecological Applications 26(6):1842-1853.