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Fire severity and ecosytem responses following crown fires in California shrublands

January 1, 2008

Chaparral shrublands burn in large high-intensity crown fires. Managers interested in how these wildfires affect ecosystem processes generally rely on surrogate measures of fire intensity known as fire severity metrics. In shrublands burned in the autumn of 2003, a study of 250 sites investigated factors determining fire severity and ecosystem responses.

Using structural equation modeling we show that stand age, prefire shrub density, and the shortest interval of the prior fire history had significant direct effects on fire severity, explaining >50% of the variation in severity.

Fire severity per se is of interest to resource managers primarily because it is presumed to be an indicator of important ecosystem processes such as vegetative regeneration, community recovery, and erosion. Fire severity contributed relatively little to explaining patterns of regeneration after fire. Two generalizations can be drawn: fire severity effects are mostly short-lived, i.e., by the second year they are greatly diminished, and fire severity may have opposite effects on different functional types.

Species richness exhibited a negative relationship to fire severity in the first year, but fire severity impacts were substantially less in the second postfire year and varied by functional type. Much of this relationship was due to alien plants that are sensitive to high fire severity; at all scales from 1 to 1000 m2, the percentage of alien species in the postfire flora declined with increased fire severity. Other aspects of disturbance history are also important determinants of alien cover and richness as both increased with the number of times the site had burned and decreased with time since last fire.

A substantial number of studies have shown that remote-sensing indices are correlated with field measurements of fire severity. Across our sites, absolute differenced normalized burn ratio (dNBR) was strongly correlated with field measures of fire severity and with fire history at a site but relative dNBR was not. Despite being correlated with fire severity, absolute dNBR showed little or no relationship with important ecosystem responses to wildfire such as shrub resprouting or total vegetative regeneration. These findings point to a critical need for further research on interpreting remote sensing indices as applied to postfire management of these shrublands.

Publication Year 2008
Title Fire severity and ecosytem responses following crown fires in California shrublands
DOI 10.1890/07-0836.1
Authors J. E. Keeley, T. Brennan, A.H. Pfaff
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecological Applications
Index ID 70033478
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse