Background: Wildfires, like many disturbances, can be catalysts for ecosystem change. Given projected climate change, tree regeneration declines and ecosystem shifts following severe wildfires are predicted. We reviewed scientific literature on post-fire tree regeneration to understand where and why no or few trees established. We wished to distinguish sites that won’t regenerate to trees because of changing climate from sites where trees could grow post fire if they had a seed source or were planted, thus supporting forest ecosystem services for society and nature, such as timber supply, habitat, watershed protection, and carbon storage.
Results: Our literature review showed that little to no post-fire tree regeneration was more common in low-elevation, dry forest types than in high-elevation forest types. However, depending on the region and species, low tree regeneration was also observed in high elevation, moist forests. Regeneration densities varied by species and seedling densities were attributed to distances to a seed source, water stress or precipitation, elevation, slope, aspect, and plant competition. Our findings provide land managers with two primary considerations to offset low tree regeneration densities. First, we supply a decision support tool of where to plant tree seedling in large high severity burned patches. Second, we recommend possibilities for mitigating and limiting large high severity burned patches to increase survival of trees to be sources of seed for natural regeneration.
Conclusions: Few or no tree seedlings are establishing on some areas of the 150+ forest fires sampled across western US, suggesting that forests may be replaced by shrublands and grasslands, especially where few seed source trees survived the wildfires. Key information gaps on how species will respond to continued climate change, repeated disturbances, and other site factors following wildfires currently limit our ability to determine future trends in forest regeneration. We provide a decision tree to assist managers in prioritizing post-fire reforestation. We emphasize prioritizing the interior of large burned patches and considering current and future climate in deciding what, when, and where to plant trees. Finally, managing fires and forests for more seed-source tree survival will reduce large, non-forested areas following wildfires where post-fire management may be necessary.