Biogeochemical legacy of prescribed fire in a giant sequoia–mixed conifer forest: A 16-year record of watershed balances



[1] The effects of prescription burning on watershed balances of major ions in mixed conifer forest were examined in a 16-year paired catchment study in Sequoia National Park, California. The objective was to determine whether fire-related changes in watershed balances persist as long as estimated low-end natural fire-return intervals (≤10 years), and whether cumulative net export caused by fire could deplete nutrient stocks between successive fires. Inputs (wet + dry deposition) and outputs (stream export) of N, S, Cl, HCO3, Ca2+, Mg2+, Na+, K+, H+, and SiO2 were measured for 7 years preceding, and 9 years following, a prescribed burn of one of the catchments. After fire, runoff coefficients increased by 7% (in dry years) to 35% (in wet years). Inorganic N was elevated in stream water for 3 years after fire. Increased export of water, SO42−, Cl, SiO2, and base cations continued through the end of the study. Pools and processes attributed to fire led to the cumulative loss, per hectare, of 1.2 kg N, 16 kg S, 25 kg Cl, 130 kg Ca2+, 19 kg Mg2+, 71 kg Na+, 29 kg K+ and 192 kg Si, above that predicted by prefire regression equations relating export in the paired catchments. This additional export equaled <1% of the N, up to one-third of the Ca and Mg, and up to three-fourths of the K, contained in the forest floor prior to combustion. Changes in watershed balances indicated that low-end natural fire-return intervals may prevent complete reaccumulation of several elements between fires.