Unexpected redwood mortality from synergies between wildfire and an emerging infectious disease


  • Corresponding Editor: A. T. Classen.


An under-examined component of global change is the alteration of disturbance regimes due to warming climates, continued species invasions, and accelerated land-use change. These drivers of global change are themselves novel ecosystem disturbances that may interact with historically occurring disturbances in complex ways. Here we use the natural experiment presented by wildfires in redwood forests impacted by an emerging infectious disease to demonstrate unexpected synergies of novel disturbance interactions. The dominant tree, coast redwood (fire resistant without negative disease impacts), experienced unexpected synergistic increases in mortality when fire and disease co-occurred. The increased mortality risk, more than fourfold at the peak of the effect, was not predictable from impacts of either disturbance alone. Changes in fire behavior associated with changes to forest fuels that occurred through disease progression overwhelmed redwood's usual resilience to wildfire. Our results demonstrate the potential for interacting disturbances to initiate novel successional trajectories and compromise ecosystem resilience.