Effects of an Intense Prescribed Forest Fire: Is It Ecological Restoration?

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Abstract

Relatively intense burning has been suggested as a possible alternative to the restoration of pre-European settlement forest conditions and fire regime in mixed conifer forests, in contrast to thinning of trees and light prescribed burning. In 1993 a management-ignited fire in a dense, never-harvested forest in Grand Canyon National Park escaped prescription and burned with greater intensity and severity than anticipated. We sampled the burned site and an adjacent unburned site (270 ha each) 6 years after the fire to assess burn effects on tree structure (species composition, size and age distributions, regeneration, and snags), forest floor fuels, and coarse woody debris. Tree structure before fire-regime disruption (1879 CE) was reconstructed with dendroecological techniques. By 6 years after burn the fire reduced average tree density (331 trees/ha) and basal area (28.5 m2/ha) to levels similar to pre-European reference conditions (approximately 246 trees/ha and 28.5 m2/ha). Mortality was concentrated in fire-susceptible species, especially white fir, restoring dominance by fire-resistant ponderosa pine. Forest floor fuels were reduced, and regeneration by aspen and understory plants was vigorous. Densities of large snags and logs were high. However the fire also killed a high proportion of old-growth trees, especially aspen. Burning created more spatial variability in forest structure than was present before fire-regime disruption by killing many trees in some areas of the site but few in other areas. The intentional use of severe burning would be challenging to managers because of the increased risk of escaped fires, but the ecological outcome of this particular wildfire was not inconsistent with ecological restoration goals for this ecosystem type.

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