Fire Intensity / Burn Severity
Fire & Wilderness
Nearly a century of fire suppression in most forested land of the United States has limited researchers’ ability to construct and rigorously test conceptual models of forest structural development in mixed-conifer ecosystems. As a result, land managers must rely on conceptual models of forest development that may overemphasize idealized stand structures and developmental pathways, which ultimately hampers management of many forest systems for resilience to future climate change impacts. We sought to determine the relative importance of fire history (frequency, severity, and time since fire) and biophysical variables on forest structural diversity and development. Importantly, we conducted our study in an ecosystem with a contemporary active fire regime where wildland fire has been managed as an ecosystem process for four decades. Using data from unburned (≥80 years since fire), once-burned and twice-burned mixed-conifer forests in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Northwest Montana, we conducted a hierarchical clustering analysis to identify forest stand structure classes. We then used a Classification and Regression Tree analysis, combined with other post-hoc analyses, to elucidate the biophysical and disturbance history drivers that lead to each structure class. The cluster analysis revealed six forest structure classes. The CART analysis indicated that time since fire plays a large role in determining forest structure, but at intermediate time scales structure is further shaped by repeat fires and interactions with biophysical variables. The CART and post-hoc analyses did not, however, indicate a singular fire history or biophysical pathway to any one structure class. We synthesize our results in a conceptual model of forest structural development under an active fire regime. This model supports existing theory that succession following severe fire plays a large role in shaping forest structure. It also recognizes the role of fire at variable severities and frequencies, the physical environment, and tree community composition in influencing forest structural development. The complexity of forest structure and development generated by an active fire regime points to the need to incorporate a process-based view of wildfire if the goal is to manage for improved resiliency and adaptive capacity to future climate change impacts.