Effect of prior disturbances on the extent and severity of wildfire in Colorado subalpine forests

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Disturbances are important in creating spatial heterogeneity of vegetation patterns that in turn may affect the spread and severity of subsequent disturbances. Between 1997 and 2002 extensive areas of subalpine forests in northwestern Colorado were affected by a blowdown of trees, bark beetle outbreaks, and salvage logging. Some of these stands were also affected by severe fires in the late 19th century. During a severe drought in 2002, fires affected extensive areas of these subalpine forests. We evaluated and modeled the extent and severity of the 2002 fires in relation to these disturbances that occurred over the five years prior to the fires and in relation to late 19th century stand-replacing fires. Occurrence of disturbances prior to 2002 was reconstructed using a combination of tree-ring methods, aerial photograph interpretation, field surveys, and geographic information systems (GIS). The extent and severity of the 2002 fires were based on the normalized difference burn ratio (NDBR) derived from satellite imagery. GIS and classification trees were used to analyze the effects of prefire conditions on the 2002 fires. Previous disturbance history had a significant influence on the severity of the 2002 fires. Stands that were severely blown down (>66% trees down) in 1997 burned more severely than other stands, and young (∼120 year old) postfire stands burned less severely than older stands. In contrast, prefire disturbances were poor predictors of fire extent, except that young (∼120 years old) postfire stands were less extensively burned than older stands. Salvage logging and bark beetle outbreaks that followed the 1997 blowdown (within the blowdown as well as in adjacent forest that was not blown down) did not appear to affect fire extent or severity. Conclusions regarding the influence of the beetle outbreaks on fire extent and severity are limited, however, by spatial and temporal limitations associated with aerial detection surveys of beetle activity. Thus, fire extent in these forests is largely independent of prefire disturbance history and vegetation conditions. In contrast, fire severity, even during extreme fire weather and in conjunction with a multiyear drought, is influenced by prefire stand conditions, including the history of previous disturbances. © 2007 by the Ecological Society of America.

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Abies lasiocarpa, blowdown, classification trees, disturbance interactions, fire, Picea engelmannii, Spruce beetle, Subalpine forests