Question: What was the role of fire during the establishment of the current overstory (ca. 1870-1940) in mixed-oak forests of eastern North America?
Location: Nine sites representing a 240-km latitudinal gradient on the Allegheny and Cumberland Plateaus of eastern North America.
Methods: Basal cross-sections were collected from 225 trees. Samples were surfaced, and fire scars were dated. Fire history diagrams were constructed and fire return intervals were calculated for each site. Geographic patterns of fire occurrence, and fire-climate relationships were assessed.
Results: Fire was a frequent and widespread occurrence during the formation of mixed-oak forests, which initiated after large-scale land clearing in the region ca. 1870. Fire return ranged from 1.7 to 11.1 years during a period of frequent burning from 1875 to 1936. Fires were widespread during this period, sometimes occurring across the study region in the same year. Fires occurred in a variety of climate conditions, including both drought and non-drought years. Fires were rare from 1936 to the present.
Conclusions: A variety of fire regime characteristics were discerned. First, a period of frequent fire lasted approximately 60 years during the establishment of the current oak overstory. Second, fire occurred during a variety of climate conditions, including wet climates and extreme drought. Finally, there was within-site temporal variability in fire occurrence. These reference conditions could be mimicked in ongoing oak restoration activities, improving the likelihood of restoration success.
Nomenclature: Gleason & Cronquist (1991).