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Mixed-severity wildfire and habitat of an old-forest obligate

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The frequency, extent, and severity of wildfire strongly influence the structure and function of ecosystems. Mixed‐severity fire regimes are the most complex and least understood fire regimes, and variability of fire severity can occur at fine spatial and temporal scales, depending on previous disturbance history, topography, fuel continuity, vegetation type, and weather. During high fire weather in 2013, a complex of mixed‐severity wildfires burned across multiple ownerships within the Klamath‐Siskiyou ecoregion of southwestern Oregon where northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) demographics were studied since 1990. A year prior to these wildfires, high‐resolution, remotely sensed forest structural information derived from light detection and ranging (lidar) data was acquired for an area that fully covered the extent of these fires. To quantify wildfire impact on northern spotted owl nesting/roosting habitat, we fit a relative habitat suitability model based on pre‐fire locations used for nesting and roosting, and forest structure variables developed from 2012 lidar data. Our pre‐fire habitat suitability model predicted nesting/roosting locations well, and variable response functions followed known resource selection patterns. These forests had typical characteristics of old‐growth forest, with high density of large live trees, high canopy cover, and complex structure in canopy height. We projected the pre‐fire model onto lidar data collected two months post‐fire to produce a post‐fire suitability map, which indicated that >93% of pre‐fire habitat that burned at high severity was no longer suitable forest for nesting and roosting. We also quantified the probability that pre‐fire nesting/roosting habitat would burn at each severity class (unburned/low, low, moderate, high). Pre‐fire nesting/roosting habitat had lower probability of burning at moderate or high severity compared to other forest types under high burning conditions. Our results indicate that northern spotted owl habitat can buffer the negative effects of climate change by enhancing biodiversity and resistance to high‐severity fires, which are predicted to increase in frequency and extent with climate change. Within this region, protecting large blocks of old forests could be an integral component of management plans that successfully maintain variability of forests in this mixed‐ownership and mixed‐severity fire regime landscape and enhance conservation of many species.

D.B. Lesmeister

Lesmeister DB. Mixed-severity wildfire and habitat of an old-forest obligate .G.Sovern S. Ecosphere. 2019 ;e02696.

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