Structure and function of wildfire and mountain pine beetle forest boundaries


  • Eliot J. B McIntire,

  • Marie-Josée Fortin

E. J. B. McIntire (, Dept of Forest Sciences, Univ. of British Columbia, 2424 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6K 1Z4, Canada. – M.-J. Fortin, Dept of Zoology, Univ. of Toronto, 25 Harbord St., Toronto, ON, M5S 3G5, Canada. (Present address of E. J. B. M.: College of Forestry, Univ. of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812, USA).


Landscape boundaries, in particular those created by natural disturbances, are fundamental structures in landscape functioning. At the stand scale, forest boundaries show a wide range of characteristics varying from sharp to diffuse, wavy to straight, enclosed areas (patches) to open ones; all of these have different effects of forest vegetation. The objectives of this study were 1) to characterize the structure of forest boundaries (width, steepness, heterogeneity) and 2) to investigate forest vegetation functional response in the boundary zones created by wildfires and mountain pine beetle (MPB) outbreaks. We studied 11 mountain pine beetle and 7 wildfire boundary zones (4–7 y since disturbance) using field-based two-dimensional grids in southern central British Columbia (Canada). Boundary zone delineation was determined through spatially constrained clustering algorithms at three sampling unit resolutions (5×5 m, 10×10 m, and 20×20 m). Then, to characterize boundary width and shape, we developed two new boundary indexes (maximized and minimized boundary zones). The identified boundary widths ranged from 0 to 127 m with a mean width of 51 m at the 20×20 m resolution for both fire and MPB. Although the widths were comparable between disturbance types, fires generally had steeper boundaries (more pronounced) than MPB, largely due to higher peak tree mortality within the disturbances (89 vs 43%). Most of the forest vegetation response variables (understory vegetation diversity, plot-level species richness, evenness, and multivariate community measures) in the boundary zones tended not to be intermediate in value between the intact forest and disturbance area, in spite of intermediate tree mortality. Tree mortality heterogeneity in the boundary zones was often highest in fires and was equal to the internal heterogeneity in MPB disturbances. Using historical natural disturbance patterns as a conservation strategy, this study proposes that forest management should create boundary complexity (width and shape), thereby creating landscape heterogeneity similar to landscapes influenced primarily by natural disturbances.