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Fire severity drives understory community dynamics and the recovery of culturally significant plants

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Anthropogenic influences are altering fire regimes worldwide, resulting in an increase in the size and severity of wildfires. Simultaneously, throughout western North America, there is increasing recognition of the important role of Indigenous fire stewardship in shaping historical fire regimes and fire-adapted ecosystems. However, there is limited understanding of how ecosystems are affected by or recover from contemporary “megafires,” particularly in terms of understory plant communities that are critical to both biodiversity and Indigenous cultures. To address this gap, our collaborative study, in partnership with Secwépemc First Nations, examined understory community recovery following a large, mixed-severity wildfire that burned in the dry and mesic conifer forests of British Columbia, Canada, with a focus on plants of high cultural significance to Secwépemc communities. To measure the effect of a continuous gradient of fire severity across forest types, we conducted field assessments of fire severity and sampled understory plants 4 years postfire. We found that native species richness and richness of species of high cultural significance were lowest in areas that burned at high severity, with distinct compositional differences between unburned areas and those that burned at high severity. These findings were consistent across forest types characterized by distinct historical fire regimes. In contrast, richness of exotic species increased with increasing fire severity in the dominant montane interior Douglas-fir forests, with exotic species closely associated with areas that burned at high severity. Our study indicates that recent megafires may be pushing ecosystems outside their historical range of variability, with negative implications for ecosystem recovery and cultural use across these fire-affected landscapes. We also found consistently higher plant diversity, and both native and cultural species richness, in subalpine forests. Collectively, our results provide strong evidence of the ecological and cultural significance of low- to moderate-severity fire and subalpine forests, and the longstanding and ongoing role of Indigenous peoples in shaping these landscapes. As wildfires continue to impact ecosystems and human communities, this study offers novel insights into the recovery of important ecological and cultural values, while highlighting the need to support ethical research collaborations with Indigenous communities and Indigenous-led revitalization of fire and plant stewardship.

Sarah Dickson-Hoyle, St̓uxwtéws (Bonaparte First Nation), Skeetchestn Natural Resources Corporation, Arial Eatherton, Jennifer N. Baron, Florencia Tiribelli, Lori D. Daniels

Dickson-Hoyle, Sarah, St̓uxwtéws (Bonaparte First Nation), Skeetchestn Natural Resources Corporation, Arial Eatherton, Jennifer N. Baron, Florencia Tiribelli, and Lori D. Daniels. 2024. “ Fire Severity Drives Understory Community Dynamics and the Recovery of Culturally Significant Plants.” Ecosphere 15(3): e4795.

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