Restoring and managing low-severity fire in dry-forest landscapes of the western USA

TitleRestoring and managing low-severity fire in dry-forest landscapes of the western USA
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsBaker, WL
JournalPLoS ONE
Start Pagee0172288
Keywordsfire effects and fire ecology, technical reports and journal articles

Low-severity fires that killed few canopy trees played a significant historical role in dry forests of the western USA and warrant restoration and management, but historical rates of burning remain uncertain. Past reconstructions focused on on dating fire years, not measuring historical rates of burning. Past statistics, including mean composite fire interval (mean CFI) and individual-tree fire interval (mean ITFI) have biases and inaccuracies if used as estimators of rates. In this study, I used regression, with a calibration dataset of 96 cases, to test whether these statistics could accurately predict two equivalent historical rates, population mean fire interval (PMFI) and fire rotation (FR). The best model, using Weibull mean ITFI, had low prediction error and R2 adj = 0.972. I used this model to predict historical PMFI/ FR at 252 sites spanning dry forests. Historical PMFI/FR for a pool of 342 calibration and predicted sites had a mean of 39 years and median of 30 years. Short (< 25 years) mean PMFI/FRs were in Arizona and New Mexico and scattered in other states. Long (> 55 years) mean PMFI/FRs were mainly from northern New Mexico to South Dakota. Mountain sites often had a large range in PMFI/FR. Nearly all 342 estimates are for old forests with a history of primarily low-severity fire, found across only about 34% of historical dry-forest area. Frequent fire (PMFI/FR < 25 years) was found across only about 14% of historical dry-forest area, with 86% having multidecadal rates of low-severity fire. Historical fuels (e.g., understory shrubs and small trees) could fully recover between multidecadal fires, allowing some denser forests and some ecosystem processes and wildlife habitat to be less limited by fire. Lower historical rates mean less restoration treatment is needed before beginning managed fire for resource benefits, where feasible. Mimicking patterns of variability in historical lowseverity fire regimes would likely benefit biological diversity and ecosystem functioning.