Background: In the Inland Pacific Northwest of the United States, fire is a dominant driver of ecological change. Within wildfire perimeters, fire effects often vary considerably and typically include remnant patches of unburned islands. As fires reburn the landscape, some unburned islands remain persistently unburned. These persistent unburned islands can serve an important ecological function as fire refugia; however, their characteristics have not been quantified.
The objective of this study was to assess the characteristics of persistent unburned islands and compare them to the burned areas that surround them. Using an existing database of unburned islands from 1984 to 2014, overlapping unburned islands were delineated. We sampled points in both persistent unburned islands and in areas burned by wildfire. At these sample points, we derived several topographical and other geospatial metrics, and we compared the characteristics of these groups. Because the study area covers many ecosystems, we stratified the analysis by different fire regime groups.
Results: Our analysis revealed that persistent unburned islands are not randomly distributed across the landscape. While the topography and vegetation fuel type that underlie persistent unburned islands differ from burned areas, these differences are dependent upon fire regime group and are less pronounced than what other studies have found. The topographic features that differed the most between persistent unburned islands and burned areas were terrain ruggedness, slope, and transformed aspect. We also found that, as unburned islands increased in persistence (i.e., remained unburned for an increasing number of overlapping fires), they decreased in size and shape complexity.
Conclusions: Our research shows that the biophysical setting underlying persistent unburned islands differs between forests and rangelands, and also differs from burned areas, which has potential applications for fire refugia prediction and management. Characterizing fire refugia and understanding the processes that contribute to their creation and maintenance will be important for land management as climate changes and increasingly large areas are affected by wildfire.