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Fire refugia are robust across Western US forested ecoregions, 1986–2021

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In the Western US, area burned and fire size have increased due to the influences of climate change, long-term fire suppression leading to higher fuel loads, and increased ignitions. However, evidence is less conclusive about increases in fire severity within these growing wildfire extents. Fires burn unevenly across landscapes, leaving islands of unburned or less impacted areas, known as fire refugia. Fire refugia may enhance post-fire ecosystem function and biodiversity by providing refuge to species and functioning as seed sources after fires. In this study, we evaluated whether the proportion and pattern of fire refugia within fire events have changed over time and across ecoregions. To do so, we processed all available Landsat 4–9 satellite imagery to identify fire refugia within the boundaries of large wildfires (405 ha+) in 16 forested ecoregions of the Western US. We found a significant change in % refugia from 1986–2021 only in one ecoregion—% refugia increased within fires in the Arizona/New Mexico Mountain ecoregion (AZ/NM). Excluding AZ/NM, we found no significant change in % refugia across the study area. Furthermore, we found no significant change in mean refugia patch size, patch density, or mean distance to refugia. As fire size increased, the amount of refugia increased proportionally. Evidence suggests that fires in AZ/NM had a higher proportion of reburns and, unlike the 15 other ecoregions, fires did not occur at higher elevation or within greener areas. We suggest several possibilities for why, with the exception of AZ/NM, ecoregions did not experience a significant change in the proportion and pattern of refugia. In summary, while area burned has increased over the past four decades, there are substantial and consistent patterns of refugia that could support post-fire recovery dependent on their spatial patterns and ability to function as seeds sources for neighboring burned patches.
Rutherford Vance Platt, Teresa B Chapman, and Jennifer K Balch
Platt et al 2024 Environ. Res. Lett. 19 014044
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