Indexed on: 06 Feb '14Published on: 06 Feb '14Published in: PloS one
There is widespread concern that fire exclusion has led to an unprecedented threat of uncharacteristically severe fires in ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Dougl. ex. Laws) and mixed-conifer forests of western North America. These extensive montane forests are considered to be adapted to a low/moderate-severity fire regime that maintained stands of relatively old trees. However, there is increasing recognition from landscape-scale assessments that, prior to any significant effects of fire exclusion, fires and forest structure were more variable in these forests. Biota in these forests are also dependent on the resources made available by higher-severity fire. A better understanding of historical fire regimes in the ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests of western North America is therefore needed to define reference conditions and help maintain characteristic ecological diversity of these systems. We compiled landscape-scale evidence of historical fire severity patterns in the ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests from published literature sources and stand ages available from the Forest Inventory and Analysis program in the USA. The consensus from this evidence is that the traditional reference conditions of low-severity fire regimes are inaccurate for most forests of western North America. Instead, most forests appear to have been characterized by mixed-severity fire that included ecologically significant amounts of weather-driven, high-severity fire. Diverse forests in different stages of succession, with a high proportion in relatively young stages, occurred prior to fire exclusion. Over the past century, successional diversity created by fire decreased. Our findings suggest that ecological management goals that incorporate successional diversity created by fire may support characteristic biodiversity, whereas current attempts to "restore" forests to open, low-severity fire conditions may not align with historical reference conditions in most ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests of western North America.