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Evaluating rehabilitation efforts following the Milford Flat Fire: successes, failures, and controlling factors

May 27, 2015

Uncontrolled wildfire in arid and semiarid ecosystems has become an increasing concern in recent decades. Active rehabilitation of fire-affected areas is often quickly initiated to minimize long-term ecosystem damage. However, the complex soil-geomorphic-vegetation patterns and low and variable moisture conditions in these regions makes restoration challenging. To further inform these post-fire management decisions, we present results from 5 years of vegetation and sediment flux monitoring following the Milford Flat Fire in west-central Utah, USA. Our sampling design includes monitoring plots in areas not burned, areas burned but where no rehabilitation was attempted, and burned areas where various rehabilitation approaches were implemented. At each of the 25 plots, vegetation cover and composition data were collected annually, and wind-driven sediment flux was measured using passive dust traps. To evaluate effectiveness of post-fire rehabilitation treatments in establishing desired species and limiting dominance of undesired species, we analyzed the temporal response of individual species and functional groups as well as community-level multivariate responses. The warm and dry conditions that persisted for approximately 12 months post-treatment, coupled with the surface disturbing rehabilitation approaches used, resulted in near-surface dust fluxes several orders of magnitude higher in treated areas than in unburned or burned areas where no rehabilitation occurred. These dry conditions and high surface sediment flux limited the establishment of seeded species in rehabilitation areas for nearly 3 years. Post-fire rehabilitation did not limit dominance by invasive annual species of concern. Perennial species composition in the areas burned but not subject to post-fire rehabilitation was relatively similar to unburned throughout the study period. In contrast, the burned plots where rehabilitation was attempted were characterized by no (<3%) perennial cover or, in response to moister conditions, seeded forage species. These results suggest the post-fire rehabilitation efforts conducted in the lower elevation regions affected by the Milford Flat Fire were not generally successful. Though dry conditions are likely to blame for the lack of success, the low and variable precipitation characteristic of these regions suggest future post-fire rehabilitation decisions must assume that precipitation is going to be insufficient and plan rehabilitation efforts that are resilient to dry conditions.