Increased fire frequency in semi-arid ecosystems can alter biochemical soil properties and soil processes that underpin ecosystem structure and functioning, thus threatening native plant communities and the species that rely on them. However, there is much uncertainty about the magnitude of change as soils are exposed to more fires, because soil recovery and changes in fire severity following a first fire mediate the impact of successive fires on soil properties. With this study we aim to evaluate how increased fire frequency affects soil biochemical properties (i.e. soil pH, soil organic matter (SOM), soil organic carbon (SOC), soil structure and mineral N) and processes (i.e. microbial and enzymatic activity) in a sagebrush-steppe ecosystem located in the Columbia Plateau Ecoregion, Washington, USA. During 2016, we collected soils from once (2012), twice (2003 and 2012), and thrice (2003, 2007, and 2012) burned areas, enabling us to test the hypothesis that increasing fire frequency will exacerbate the impact of fire on soil properties and processes. Our study yielded three main results: (1) fire reduced the total soil C concentration and soil C in aggregates relative to unburned soil, but only when soil was exposed to fire once (i.e. the most recent fire), (2) compared to the unburned soils, SOM contents, enzyme activity and microbial CO2 respiration were suppressed in the once and thrice burned soils, but not in the twice burned soils, and (3) fire increased NO3−-N contents across the once and twice burned sites, and reduced enzyme activity associated with N cycling in the thrice burned sites. Taken together, our findings suggest that a one-time fire in this shrub dominated semi-arid ecosystem significantly changes soil biochemical attributes and microbially driven processes. With sufficient time between fires, these structural and functional properties can partially recover, and this may persist even after a second fire, but recovery is limited when a third fire creates an additional disturbance at a shorter time interval. Furthermore, while soil C pools and microbial decomposition processes were able to recover with sufficient time, greater soil resource availability prevailed in soil across all fire frequencies, indicating that fire is likely to promote invasion and reduce ecosystem stability, even when other soil properties recover.
Nichols, Leslie; Shinneman, Douglas J.; McIlroy, Susan K.; de Graaff, Marie-Anne. 2021. Fire frequency impacts soil properties and processes in sagebrush steppe ecosystems of the Columbia Basin. Applied Soil Ecology 165:103967. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apsoil.2021.103967