Composition and Structure of Forest Fire Refugia: What Are the Ecosystem Legacies across Burned Landscapes?

Garrett Meigs, Meg Krawchuk
2018 Forests  
Locations within forest fires that remain unburned or burn at low severity-known as fire refugia-are important components of contemporary burn mosaics, but their composition and structure at regional scales are poorly understood. Focusing on recent, large wildfires across the US Pacific Northwest (Oregon and Washington), our research objectives are to (1) classify fire refugia and burn severity based on relativized spectral change in Landsat time series; (2) quantify the pre-fire composition
more » ... fire composition and structure of mapped fire refugia; (3) in forested areas, assess the relative abundance of fire refugia and other burn severity classes across forest composition and structure types. We analyzed a random sample of 99 recent fires in forest-dominated landscapes from 2004 to 2015 that collectively encompassed 612,629 ha. Across the region, fire refugia extent was substantial but variable from year to year, with an annual mean of 38% of fire extent and range of 15-60%. Overall, 85% of total fire extent was forested, with the other 15% being non-forest. In comparison, 31% of fire refugia extent was non-forest prior to the most recent fire, highlighting that mapped refugia do not necessarily contain tree-based ecosystem legacies. The most prevalent non-forest cover types in refugia were vegetated: shrub (40%), herbaceous (33%), and crops (18%). In forested areas, the relative abundance of fire refugia varied widely among pre-fire forest types (20-70%) and structural conditions (23-55%). Consistent with fire regime theory, fire refugia and high burn severity areas were inversely proportional. Our findings underscore that researchers, managers, and other stakeholders should interpret burn severity maps through the lens of pre-fire land cover, especially given the increasing importance of fire and fire refugia under global change. Forests 2018, 9, 243 2 of 20 can perform important ecological functions, such as protecting fire-sensitive flora and fauna and providing propagules for the regeneration of more severely burned locations (e.g., [11] [12] [13] [14] ). In this way, the resistance of fire refugia may confer resilience to landscapes that will be increasingly important given projections of increasing fire activity due to climate warming and land use [15] [16] [17] . Although previous studies in western North American forests have used satellite imagery to quantify the distribution and abundance of fire refugia [5, 18, 19] or their predictability [7], very little is known about the composition and structure of these areas. Because forest-dominated landscapes can include diverse forest and non-forest conditions, quantifying the variability of fire refugia across heterogeneous regions is essential to evaluate assumptions regarding their ecological functions and to support ecosystem management. Our study develops new approaches to quantify and characterize the composition and structure of fire refugia at landscape and regional scales with detailed ecological resolution. Studies to date typically characterize forest fire refugia with two basic approaches, either with intensive field observations at a limited number of locations or across extensive landscapes and regions without specific information on local conditions. Researchers have conducted field-based assessments in different geographical settings, including Australia (e.g., [12, 20, 21] ) and western North America (e.g., [7] [8] [9] 22] ), typically with the goal of understanding conditions that give rise to fire refugia over long time scales and for specific types of organisms or species. For example, Camp et al. [8] used inventory plots to assess the composition and structure of forest sites that had not burned as frequently or severely as adjacent forests in Washington, USA, associating refugia with late-successional characteristics, including fire-intolerant species, old trees, multi-layered canopies, and downed coarse wood. These refugia contained abundant fuel for a subsequent fire event, leading to marginally higher overstory tree mortality in refugial than in non-refugial sites and demonstrating that late-successional refugia are dynamic [9] . These and other local-scale studies (e.g., [23, 24] ) raise questions about the persistence and sustainability of fire refugia under global change, but they are not designed to quantify fire refugia composition and structure at broader scales. In contrast to field-based studies, landscape and regional assessments have leveraged spatially and temporally extensive satellite imagery to map and identify refugia locations within fire perimeters as areas that remain unburned or burn with low severity. These locations, typically defined by low spectral change between pre-and post-fire images, appear to be more abundant than previously thought (e.g., 20% of fire perimeters [18] ). However, these remotely mapped refugia likely include a variety of forest and non-forest areas, with associated variation in ecosystem functions and management significance [19] . Although forest composition and structure vary widely across landscapes and regions (e.g., [25, 26] ), satellite-based studies typically have not characterized the types and structures of forested and non-forested conditions within mapped fire refugia. Here, we focus on recent fire events, using Landsat-based change detection and existing maps to identify fire refugia as areas experiencing minimal spectral change within generally forested landscapes. We recognize that these recent forest fire refugia represent only one characterization of refugia, but such areas are important to forest and fire managers, many of whom utilize Landsat-based burn severity maps as a primary tool to assess fire effects and implement post-fire management activities. Forest ecosystems contain a variety of compositional and structural conditions that influence fire behavior, fire effects (i.e., burn severity), and post-fire ecosystem responses at multiple spatiotemporal scales. Forest composition is associated with fire regime attributes (i.e., fire frequency, burn severity) that vary from frequent, low-severity fire to infrequent, high-severity fire [1, 3] . Due to inherent differences in fire tolerance, fire refugia are more likely to contain particular species, such as thick-barked Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii [Mirb.] Franco) and mature ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Lawson & C. Lawson) that can tolerate surface fires. Similarly, forest structure influences fire behavior, burn severity, and the capacity to form refugia, for instance in open forests with limited surface and ladder fuels and associated crown fire potential [1] . Structure also is important for wildlife habitat and ecosystem resilience, and structural complexity is a vital attribute of natural forests that both influences and emerges from disturbance dynamics [26, 27] . Robust data on pre-fire forest Forests 2018, 9, 243 3 of 20
doi:10.3390/f9050243 fatcat:qclsoyximrfmzehj7tklfx22b4