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Forest resistance to extended drought enhanced by prescribed fire in low elevation forests of the Sierra Nevada

September 15, 2021

Prescribed fire reduces fire hazards by removing dead and live fuels (small trees and shrubs). Reductions in forest density following prescribed fire treatments (often in concert with mechanical treatments) may also lessen competition so that residual trees might be more likely to survive when confronted with additional stressors, such as drought. The current evidence for these effects is mixed and additional study is needed. Previous work found increased tree survivorship in low elevation forests with a recent history of fire during the early years of an intense drought (2012 to 2014) in national parks in the southern Sierra Nevada. We extend these observations through additional years of intense drought and continuing elevated tree mortality through 2017 at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Relative to unburned sites, we found that burned sites had lower stem density and had lower proportions of recently dead trees (for stems ≤47.5 cm dbh) that presumably died during the drought. Differences in recent tree mortality among burned and unburned sites held for both fir (white fir and red fir) and pine (sugar pine and ponderosa pine) species. Unlike earlier results, models of individual tree mortality probability supported an interaction between plot burn status and tree size, suggesting the effect of prescribed fire was limited to small trees. We consider differences with other recent results and discuss potential management implications including trade-offs between large tree mortality following prescribed fire and increased drought resistance.