Burn severity and pre-fire seral state interact to shape vegetation responses to fire in a young, western Cascade Range forest

TitleBurn severity and pre-fire seral state interact to shape vegetation responses to fire in a young, western Cascade Range forest
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2022
AuthorsHalpern, CB, Antos, JA
JournalForest Ecology and Management
KeywordsEarly seral, Fire severity, forest understory, Functional group, Seral state, Species diversity, technical reports and journal articles

Wildfire size and frequency are increasing across the western U.S., affecting large areas of young, second-growth forest originating after logging and burning. Despite their prevalence in the western Cascade landscape, we have a poor understanding of how these young stands respond to fire or how their responses differ from older, undisturbed forests, which are well studied. We explore these questions using pre- and early post-fire data from a young (<30-year-old), naturally regenerating forest in western Oregon that was burned preemptively to limit spread of the 2018 Terwilliger Fire. We exploit natural variation in the initial vegetation and fire behavior to test how pre-fire seral state (relative abundance of early-seral vs. forest-generalist species) and burn severity interact to shape short-term responses to fire. Drawing from disturbance theory and studies of fire in older forests we hypothesized that pre-fire seral state would mediate compositional change and functional-group cover and richness through the regenerative and clonal traits of available species. Two years after fire, we found greater compositional change with increasing fire severity, although the effect was weaker where early-seral species dominated prior to burning. Species richness was unaffected by increasing fire severity as gains in early-seral species were balanced by loss of forest species. In contrast, species diversity (Hill’s N1) and evenness declined, reflecting a shift in the dominance structure of the understory, with the pre-fire dominant, Pteridium aquilinum, expanding further, and forest generalists declining. Among plant functional groups, both annuals and perennials responded positively to fire severity, but annuals remained sparse (<1% of herbaceous cover), a stark contrast to their dominance after fire in older forests. Increasing fire severity enhanced the cover and richness of early-seral herbs. However, it reduced the cover or richness of most other groups, including early-seral shrubs, forest herbs, and forest shrubs. Within most functional groups, species varied in their responses to fire, reflecting variation in the type and depth of burial of perennating structures and in the potential for clonal growth. Our results underscore the importance of pre-fire conditions for shaping understory responses to fire in young forests, as they do in older forests. Legacies of past disturbance and species’ adaptions to fire clearly favor early-seral herbs over residual forest species. Further study is needed to determine whether the recurrence of fire during the early stages of stand development simply resets succession or alters its longer-term trajectory.