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Assessing giant sequoia mortality and regeneration following high-severity wildfire

March 21, 2024

Fire is a critical driver of giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum [Lindl.] Buchholz) regeneration. However, fire suppression combined with the effects of increased temperature and severe drought has resulted in fires of an intensity and size outside of the historical norm. As a result, recent mega-fires have killed a significant portion of the world's sequoia population (13%–19%), and uncertainty surrounds whether severely affected groves will be able to recover naturally, potentially leading to a loss of grove area. To assess the likelihood of natural recovery, we collected spatially explicit data assessing mortality, crown condition, and regeneration within four giant sequoia groves that were severely impacted by the SQF- (2020) and KNP-Complex (2021) wildfires within Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. In total, we surveyed 5.9 ha for seedlings and assessed the crown condition of 1104 giant sequoias. To inform management, we used a statistical methodology that robustly quantifies the uncertainty in inherently “noisy” seedling data and takes advantage of readily available remote sensing metrics that would make our findings applicable to other recently burned groves. A loss of giant sequoia grove area would be a consequence of giant sequoia tree mortality followed by a failure of natural regeneration. We found that areas that experienced very high-severity fire (above ~800 RdNBR) are at substantial risk for the loss of grove area, with tree mortality rapidly increasing and giant sequoia seedling density simultaneously decreasing with fire severity. Such high-severity areas comprised 17.8, 142.0, 14.6, 1.6 ha and ~90%, ~14%, ~53%, and ~27% of Board Camp, Redwood Mountain, Suwanee, and New Oriole Lake groves, respectively. In all sampling areas, we found that seedling densities fell far below the average density measured after prescribed fires, where seedling numbers were almost certainly adequate to maintain giant sequoia populations and postfire conditions were more in keeping with historical norms. Importantly, spatial pattern is also important in assessing the risk of grove loss, and in two groves, Suwanee and New Oriole Lake, the high-severity patches were not always contiguous, potentially making some areas more resilient to regeneration failure due to the proximity of surviving trees.

Publication Year 2024
Title Assessing giant sequoia mortality and regeneration following high-severity wildfire
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.4789
Authors David Nicolas Bertil Soderberg, Adrian Das, Nathan L. Stephenson, Marc D. Meyer, Christy A. Brigham, Joshua Flickinger
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70252548
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center