Interactions Between Fire Refugia and Climate-Environment Conditions Determine Mesic Subalpine Forest Recovery After Large and Severe Wildfires

TitleInteractions Between Fire Refugia and Climate-Environment Conditions Determine Mesic Subalpine Forest Recovery After Large and Severe Wildfires
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2022
AuthorsBusby, SU, Holz, A
JournalFrontiers in Forests and Global Change
Date Published05/2022
Keywordscascade range, delayed mortality, fire refugia, high-severity wildfire, post-fire forest recovery, seed availability, seed dispersal, subalpine conifer forest, technical reports and journal articles

Infrequent stand-replacing wildfires are characteristic of mesic and/or cool conifer forests in western North America, where forest recovery within high-severity burn patch interiors can be slow, yet successful over long temporal periods (decades to centuries). Increasing fire frequency and high-severity burn patch size, under a warming climate, however, may challenge post-fire forest recovery, promoting landscape-level shifts in forest structure, composition, and distribution of non-forest patches. Crucial to a delay and/or impediment to this shift, fire refugia (i.e., remnant seed sources) may determine forest recovery trajectories and potential forest state-transitions. To examine how fire refugia attributes (i.e. extent, composition, and structure) interact with local climate and environmental conditions to determine post-fire forest recovery responses, we developed fine-grain maps of fire refugia via remote sensing and conducted field-based assessment of post-fire conifer tree establishment largely originating (i.e., dispersed) from fire refugium in the Central Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest United States. We found that limitations on seed availability, represented by the distance2-weighted density (D2WD) of fine-grain refugia extent, largely explained post-fire tree establishment responses within our relatively mesic and cool subalpine study sites. Interactions between seed availability, climate, and environmental conditions indicated that the structural attributes of refugia (e.g., tree height) and site abiotic/biotic environmental controls (e.g., climate water deficit, canopy cover, and coarse woody debris cover) interplayed to constrain or enhance species-specific tree establishment responses. Importantly, these interactions illustrate that when seed availability is critically low for a given area, climate-environment conditions may strongly determine whether forests recover following fire(s). Toward modelling and predicting tree establishment responses and potential forest state-transitions after large stand-replacing fires(s), our study demonstrates the importance of accurately quantifying seed availability via the fine-grain extent, configuration, and attributes of remnant seed source legacies.