Question: What is the relative importance of low- and high-severity fires in shaping forest structure across the range of Pinus ponderosa in northern Colorado?
Location: Colorado Front Range, USA.
Methods: To assess severities of historic fires, 24 sites were sampled across an elevation range of 1800 to 2800 m for fire scars, tree establishment dates, tree mortality, and changes in tree-ring growth.
Results: Below 1950 m, the high number of fire scars, scarcity of large post-fire cohorts, and lack of synchronous tree mortality or growth releases, indicate that historic fires were of low severity. In contrast, above 2200 m, fire severity was greater but frequency of widespread fires was substantially less. At 18 sites above 1950 m, 34 to 80% of the live trees date from establishment associated with the last moderate- to high-severity fire. In these 18 sites, only 2 to 52% of the living trees pre-date these fires suggesting that fire severities prior to any effects of fire suppression were sufficient to kill many trees.
Conclusions: These findings for the P. ponderosa zone above ca. 2200 m (i.e. most of the zone) contradict the widespread perception that fire exclusion, at least at the stand scale of tens to hundreds of hectares, has resulted in unnaturally high stand densities or in an atypical abundance of shade-tolerant species. At relatively mesic sites (e.g. higher elevation, north-facing), the historic fire regime consisted of a variable-severity regime, but forest structure was shaped primarily by severe fires rather than by surface fires.
Nomenclature: Weber (1976).