Fire-Regime Disruption and Pine-Oak Forest Structure in the Sierra Madre Occidental, Durango, Mexico

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Abstract

Fire is a common but poorly understood disturbance in the forested ecosystems of the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico. In this study, fire history, forest structure (density, species composition, regeneration, forest floor fuels, herbaceous cover, and age of pines), and the dendrochronological tree-ring record were measured at two unharvested 70-ha pine-oak sites near Ojito de Camellones, Durango, Mexico. Study sites were matched in slope, aspect, elevation, slope position, and plant composition, but they differed in fire history since 1945 and in forest structure. The long-term mean fire intervals (MFI) for all fires at both sites up to 1945 were similar—4.0 years at Site 1 (1744–1945) and 4.1 years at Site 2 (1815–1945)—but Site 1 burned only three times at the site margins since 1945 while Site 2 had 9 fires that scarred two or more sample trees and 15 total fires since 1945. Density measurements and age and diameter distributions showed that Site 1 was dominated by numerous, younger, smaller trees (mean total basal area of 23.4 m2/ha and 2730 trees/ha), while Site 2 had fewer, older, larger trees (basal area of 37.2 m2/ha, 647 trees/ha). Large, rotten fuel loading and duff depth were also greater at Site 1. Because regeneration averaged 6200 stems/ha at Site 1 and 8730 stems/ha at Site 2 (no significant difference), forest density at Site 2 was not limited by regeneration capability. The distributions of overstory diameter and pine age at both sites indicate that tree establishment occurred in pulses, with the largest cohort of trees establishing at Site 1 following the 1945 fire. The dense regeneration and heavy fuel accumulation at Site 1 are likely to support a switch from the former low-intensity fire regime to a high-intensity, stand-replacing fire across the site when the next suitable combination of ignition and weather occurs. Baseline quantitative information on fire frequency and ecological effects is essential to guide conservation or restoration of Madrean forests and may prove valuable for restoration of related fire-dependent ecosystems that have experienced extended fire exclusion elsewhere in North America.

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