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Effects of fire size and pattern on early succession in Yellowstone National Park

Author(s): Monica G. Turner, William H. Romme, Robert H. Gardner, William W. Hargrove
Year Published: 1997
Description:

The Yellowstone fires of 1988 affected >250000 ha, creating a mosaic of burn severities across the landscape and providing an ideal opportunity to study effects of fire size and pattern on postfire succession. We asked whether vegetation responses differed between small and large burned patches within the fire-created mosaic in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) and evaluated the influence of spatial patterning on the postfire vegetation. Living vegetation in a small (1 ha), moderate (70-200 ha), and large (500-3600 ha) burned patch at each of three geographic locations was sampled annually from 1990 to 1993. Burn severity and patch size had significant effects on most biotic responses. Severely burned areas had higher cover and density of lodgepole pine seedlings, greater abundance of opportunistic species, and lower richness of vascular plant species than less severely burned areas. Larger burned patches had higher cover of tree seedlings and shrubs, greater densities of lodgepole pine seedlings and opportunistic species, and lower species richness than smaller patches. Herbaceous species present before the fires responded individually to burn severity and patch size; some were more abundant in large patches or severely burned areas, while others were more abundant in small patches or lightly burned areas. To date, dispersal into the burned areas from the surrounding unburned forest has not been an important mechanism for reestablishment of forest species. Most plant cover in burned areas consisted of resprouting survivors during the first 3 yr after the fires. A pulse of seedling establishment in 1991 suggested that local dispersal from these survivors was a dominant mechanism for reestablishment of forest herbs. Succession across much of YNP appeared to be moving toward plant communities similar to those that burned in 1988, primarily because extensive biotic residuals persisted even within very large burned areas. However, forest reestablishment remained questionable in areas of old (>400 yr) forests with low prefire serotiny. Despite significant effects of burn severity and patch size, the most important explanatory variable for most biotic responses was geographic location, particularly as related to broad-scale patterns of serotiny in Pinus contorta. We conclude that the effects of fire size and pattern were important and some may be persistent, but that these landscape-scale effects occurred within an overriding context of broader scale gradients.

Citation: Turner, Monica G.; Romme, William H.; Gardner, Robert H.; Hargrove, William W. 1997. Effects of fire size and pattern on early succession in Yellowstone National Park. Ecological Monographs. 67(4): 411-433.
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - First Order, Fire Intensity / Burn Severity, Patch Size, Ecological - Second Order, Vegetation, Fire Regime, Fire and Landscape Mosaics
Ecosystem(s): Subalpine wet spruce-fir forest, Subalpine dry spruce-fir forest
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 8238
FRAMES RCS number: 9621
Record updated: May 23, 2018