Fire Intensity / Burn Severity
Recovery after fire
Following a wildfire, regeneration to forest can take decades to centuries and is no longer assured in many western U.S. environments given escalating wildfire severity and warming trends. After large fire years, managers prioritize where to allocate scarce planting resources, often with limited information on the factors that drive successful forest establishment. Where occurring, long‐term effects of postfire salvage operations can increase uncertainty of establishment. Here, we collected field data on postfire regeneration patterns within 13‐ to 28‐yr‐old burned patches in eastern Washington State. Across 248 plots, we sampled tree stems <4 m height using a factorial design that considered (1) fire severity, moderate vs. high severity; (2) salvage harvesting, salvaged vs. no management; and (3) potential vegetation type (PVT), sample resides in a dry, moist, or cold mixed‐conifer forest environment. We found that regeneration was abundant throughout the study region, with a median of 4414 (IQR 19,618) stems/ha across all plots. Only 15% of plots fell below minimum timber production stocking standards (350 trees/ha), and <2% of plots were unstocked. Densities were generally highest in high‐severity patches and following salvage harvesting, although high variability among plots and across sites led to variable significance for these factors. Post hoc analyses suggested that mild postfire weather conditions may have reduced water stress on tree establishment and early growth, contributing to overall high stem densities. Douglas fir was the most abundant species, particularly in moderate‐severity patches, followed by ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, western larch, and Engelmann spruce. Generalized additive models (GAMs) revealed species‐level climatic tolerances and seed dispersal limits that portend future challenges to regeneration with expected future climate warming and increased fire activity. Postfire regeneration will occur on sites with adequate seed sources within their climatic tolerances.