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Patterns, drivers, and implications of postfire delayed tree mortality in temperate conifer forests of the western United States

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Conifer forest resilience may be threatened by increasing wildfire activity and compound disturbances in western North America. Fire refugia enhance forest resilience, yet may decline over time due to delayed mortality—a process that remains poorly understood at landscape and regional scales. To address this uncertainty, we used high-resolution satellite imagery (5-m pixel) to map and quantify delayed mortality of conifer tree cover between 1 and 5 years postfire, across 30 large wildfires that burned within three montane ecoregions in the western United States. We used statistical models to explore the influence of burn severity, topography, soils, and climate moisture deficit on delayed mortality. We estimate that delayed mortality reduced live conifer tree cover by 5%–25% at the fire perimeter scale and 12%–15% at the ecoregion scale. Remotely sensed burn severity (1-year postfire) was the strongest predictor of delayed mortality, indicating patch-level fire effects are a strong proxy for fire injury severity among surviving trees that eventually perish. Delayed mortality rates were further influenced by long-term average and short-term postfire climate moisture deficits, illustrating the impact of drought on fire-injured tree survival. Our work demonstrates that delayed mortality in conifer forests of the western United States can be remotely quantified at a fine grain and landscape scale, is a spatially extensive phenomenon, is driven by fire–climate–environment interactions, and has important ecological implications.

Sebastian Busby, Cody Evers, Andrés Holz

Busby, Sebastian, Cody Evers, and Andrés Holz. 2024. “ Patterns, Drivers, and Implications of Postfire Delayed Tree Mortality in Temperate Conifer Forests of the Western United States.” Ecosphere 15(4): e4805.


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