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Still standing: recent patterns of post-fire conifer refugia in ponderosa pine-dominated forests of the Colorado Front Range

Author(s): Teresa B. Chapman, Tania L. Schoennagel, Thomas T. Veblen, Kyle Rodman
Year Published: 2020

Forested fire refugia (trees that survive fires) are important disturbance legacies that provide seed sources for post-fire regeneration. Conifer regeneration has been limited following some recent western fires, particularly in ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forests. However, the extent, characteristics, and predictability of ponderosa pine fire refugia are largely unknown. Within 23 fires in ponderosa pine-dominated forests of the Colorado Front Range (1996–2013), we evaluated the spatial characteristics and predictability of refugia: first using Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity (MTBS) burn severity metrics, then using landscape variables (topography, weather, anthropogenic factors, and pre-fire forest cover). Using 1-m resolution aerial imagery, we created a binary variable of post-fire conifer presence (‘Conifer Refugia’) and absence (‘Conifer Absence’) within 30-m grid cells. We found that maximum patch size of Conifer Absence was positively correlated with fire size, and 38% of the burned area was ≥ 50m from a conifer seed source, revealing a management challenge as fire sizes increase with warming further limiting conifer recovery. In predicting Conifer Refugia with two MTBS-produced databases, thematic burn severity classes (TBSC) and continuous Relative differenced Normalized Burn Ratio (RdNBR) values, Conifer Absence was high in previously forested areas of Low and Moderate burn severity classes in TBSC. RdNBR more accurately identified post-fire conifer survivorship. In predicting Conifer Refugia with landscape variables, Conifer Refugia were less likely during burn days with high maximum temperatures: while Conifer Refugia were more likely on moister soils and closer to higher order streams, homes, and roads; and on less rugged, valley topography. Importantly, pre-fire forest canopy cover was not strongly associated with Conifer Refugia. This study further informs forest management by mapping post-fire patches lacking conifer seed sources, validating the use of RdNBR for fire refugia, and detecting abiotic and topographic variables that may promote conifer refugia.

Citation: Chapman, Thomas B.; Schoennagel, Tania; Veblen, Thomas T.; Rodman, Kyle C. 2020. Still standing: recent patterns of post-fire conifer refugia in ponderosa pine-dominated forests of the Colorado Front Range. PLoS ONE 15(1):e0226926. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0226926
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - Second Order, Vegetation, Fire Regime, Fire Intensity / Burn Severity, Mapping
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 20680
FRAMES RCS number: 60581
Record updated: Feb 5, 2020