Does prescribed fire promote resistance to drought in low elevation forests of the Sierra Nevada, California, USA?

TitleDoes prescribed fire promote resistance to drought in low elevation forests of the Sierra Nevada, California, USA?
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2016
Authorsvan Mantgem, PJ
Secondary AuthorsCaprio, AC
Tertiary AuthorsStephenson, NL
Subsidiary AuthorsDas, AJ
JournalFire Ecology
Start Page13
Keywordsclimate change and fire, drought, prescribed burning, technical reports and journal articles

Prescribed fire is a primary tool used to restore western forests following more than a century of fire exclusion, reducing fire hazard by removing dead and live fuels (small trees and shrubs).  It is commonly assumed that the reduced forest density following prescribed fire also reduces competition for resources among the remaining trees, so that the remaining trees are more resistant (more likely to survive) in the face of additional stressors, such as drought.  Yet this proposition remains largely untested, so that managers do not have the basic information to evaluate whether prescribed fire may help forests adapt to a future of more frequent and severe drought.

During the third year of drought, in 2014, we surveyed 9950 trees in 38 burned and 18 unburned mixed conifer forest plots at low elevation (<2100 m a.s.l.) in Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite national parks in California, USA.  Fire had occurred in the burned plots from 6 yr to 28 yr before our survey.  After accounting for differences in individual tree diameter, common conifer species found in the burned plots had significantly reduced probability of mortality compared to unburned plots during the drought.  Stand density (stems ha-1) was significantly lower in burned versus unburned sites, supporting the idea that reduced competition may be responsible for the differential drought mortality response.  At the time of writing, we are not sure if burned stands will maintain lower tree mortality probabilities in the face of the continued, severe drought of 2015.  Future work should aim to better identify drought response mechanisms and how these may vary across other forest types and regions, particularly in other areas experiencing severe drought in the Sierra Nevada and on the Colorado Plateau.