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Long-term effects of prescribed fire on mixed conifer forest structure in the Sierra Nevada, California

Released: 2011
van Mantgem, PJ, NL Stephenson, JJ Battles, EK Knapp, JE Keeley.  2011. Long-term effects of prescribed fire on mixed conifer forest structure in the Sierra Nevada, California.  Forest Ecology and Management 261: 989–994. doi: 10.1016/j.foreco.2010.12.013

The capacity of prescribed fire to restore forest conditions is often judged by changes in forest structure within a few years following burning. However prescribed fire might have longer-term effects on forest structure, potentially changing treatment assessments. We examined annual changes in fores structure in five 1 ha old-growth plots immediately before prescribed fire and up to eight years after fire at Sequoia National Park, California. Fire-induced declines in stem density (67% average decrease at eight years post-fire) were nonlinear, taking up to eight years to reach a presumed asymptote. Declines in live stem biomass were also nonlinear, but smaller in magnitude (32% average decrease at eight years post-fire) as most large trees survived the fires. The preferential survival of large trees following fire resulted in significant shifts in stem diameter distributions. Mortality rates remained significantly above background rates up to six years after the fires. Prescribed fire did not have a large influence on the representation of dominant species. Fire-caused mortlaity appeared to be spatially random, and therefore did not generally alter heterogeneous tree spatial patterns. Our results suggest that prescribed fire can bring about substantial changes to forest structure in old-growth mixed conifer forests in the Sierra Nevada, but that long-term observations are needed to fully describe some measures of fire effects.

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