Fire Ecology, 2017
Volume 13, Issue 1
Corroborating Evidence of a Pre-Euro-American Low- to Moderate-Severity Fire Regime in Yellow Pine–Mixed Conifer Forests of the Sierra Nevada, California, USA
Authors: Jay D. Miller and Hugh D. Safford
Fire was the dominant ecological process controlling forest structure and succession in western North American conifer forests for thousands of years. Because fires are now suppressed, and because widespread logging has greatly altered vegetation structure, land managers often use estimates of pre-Euro-American settlement forest conditions to help guide restoration actions. It follows that it is important to fully understand the characteristics of pre-Euro-American settlement fire regimes. Percentages of high-severity fire, fire rotation period, and proportions of early, mid, and late developmental forests are intricately and inextricably linked. Early twentieth century vegetation maps that appear to reflect aspects of pre-settlement forest conditions demonstrate that large patches of montane chaparral, which is often an early seral community in yellow pine-mixed conifer forests, were mostly restricted to steep south-facing canyon slopes at higher elevations associated with fir or subalpine forests. When resampled to a 16 ha minimum mapping unit, we found that an early twentieth century vegetation map shows montane chaparral occupied only about five percent of the landscape outside of areas that were highly impacted by gold rush era mining. We found that successional modeling suggests that similar levels (7 %) of high severity per fire in pre-settlement yellow pine-mixed conifer forests in the Sierra Nevada would permit about half of the forested area to reach late development state, consistent with other estimated amounts of pre-settlement old-growth forests. In contrast, we found that high levels (30 %) of high severity per fire—the current average—would result in only about 13 % of forests in a late development state. We do not see evidence that large proportions of high-severity fire were typical during pre-settlement fires in yellow pine-mixed conifer forests in our study area.