Fire Intensity / Burn Severity
Recovery after fire
High-severity fires in dry conifer forests of the United States Southwest have created large (>1000 ha) treeless areas that are unprecedented in the regional historical record. These fires have reset extensive portions of Southwestern ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Lawson & C. Lawson var. scopulorum Engelm.) forest landscapes. At least two recovery options following high-severity fire are emerging. One option is for post-fire successional pathways to move toward a return to the pre-fire forest type. Alternatively, an area may transition to persistent non-forested ecosystems. We studied regeneration patterns of ponderosa pine following eight fires in Arizona and New Mexico, USA, that burned in dry conifer forests dominated by ponderosa pine during a recent 18-year regional drought period, 1996 to 2013. Our a priori hypotheses were: 1) the most xeric areas within these severely burned dry conifer forests are least likely to regenerate to the pre-fire forest type due to persistent post-fire moisture stress; and 2) areas farther away from conifer seed sources have a lower likelihood of regeneration, even if these areas are climatically favorable for post-fire ponderosa pine establishment. We evaluated our hypotheses using empirical data and generalized linear mixed-effects models. We found that low-elevation, xeric sites are more limiting to conifer regeneration than higher-elevation mesic sites. Areas >150 m from a seed source are much less likely to have ponderosa pine regeneration. Spatial interpolations of modeled post-fire regeneration of ponderosa pine across the study landscapes indicate expansive areas with low likelihood of pine regeneration following high-severity fire. We discuss multiple post-fire successional pathways following high-severity fire, including potentially stable transitions to non-forest vegetation types that may represent long-term type conversions. These findings regarding landscape changes in Southwest forests in response to fires and post-fire regeneration patterns during early-stage climate warming contribute to the development of better-informed ecosystem management strategies for forest adaptation or mitigation under projected hotter droughts in this region.