Delayed tree mortality, bark beetle activity, and regeneration dynamics five years following the Wallow Fire, Arizona, USA: Assessing trajectories towards resiliency
Publication date: 15 November 2018
Source: Forest Ecology and Management, Volume 428
Author(s): John P. Roccaforte, Andrew Sánchez Meador, Amy E.M. Waltz, Monica L. Gaylord, Michael T. Stoddard, David W. Huffman
Warm/dry mixed conifer forests have undergone changes in disturbance regimes, forest structure, species composition, and surface fuel accumulation which have led to increased susceptibility to large, uncharacteristically severe wildfires and pathogenic outbreaks. Ecosystems resilient to fire events return to a similar set of structures (e.g., forest and understory composition and density) or processes (e.g., fire, decomposition rates); however, when exposed to disturbances outside the evolutionary envelope, may transition to a different state (e.g., type conversion). We sampled warm/dry mixed conifer forest stands treated prior to the 2011 Wallow Fire and paired untreated sites five years following the fire. Our objective was to evaluate mid-term ecosystem resiliency in terms of forest structure, bark beetle activity, and tree regeneration. We hypothesized that treated units would have higher mid-term post-fire resiliency compared to untreated units. In 2016, average total tree density remained significantly lower in treated compared to paired untreated units; conifer density and BA decreased in both treated and untreated units. Diameter distributions in 2016 treated units remained similar to those observed in 2012 with the exception of increased density in the smallest diameter class. In untreated units, the majority of tree density reductions occurred in the 10–30 cm dbh classes. Post-fire tree mortality was stable across treated and untreated units, with no significant differences; however, abundant ingrowth of small hardwoods occurred throughout the study area. Large-tree density decreased by about 20% in both treated and untreated units between 2012 and 2016. Evidence of post-fire bark beetles was generally low and patchy throughout the study site; however, beetle activity was more widespread in untreated units. Twice as many trees were attacked by bark beetles in untreated versus treated units suggesting treatments may have reduced post-fire beetle activity. Following wildfire, observed conifer regeneration was lower and hardwood regeneration was higher with increasing burn severity; conifer regeneration was nearly three times higher in treated units. This study suggests that pre-fire fuel reduction treatments contribute less to mid-term resiliency than to short-term resiliency of forested ecosystems. We observed trends of higher resilience to insect outbreaks and potential implications for type change from conifer to deciduous forest. Furthermore, our study underscores the importance of understanding mid-term post-fire recovery, and while it provides insights regarding recovery of these ecosystems, additional monitoring and research is needed to fully understand the implications toward long-term resiliency.
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