Forest Pattern and Ecological Process: A Synthesis of 25 Years of Research

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  2. Forest Pattern and Ecological Process: A Synthesis of 25 Years of Research
  3. David Lindenmayer
  4. Forest Pattern and Ecological Process, David Lindenmayer,

Fire History : This concept describes how often fires occur in a geographical area. Fire scars, or a layer of charcoal remaining on a living tree as it adds a layer of cells annually, provide a record that can be used to determine when in history a fire occurred. Fire Regime : Fire regime is a generalized way of integrating various fire characteristics, such as the fire intensity, severity, frequency, and vegetative community. Fire Adaptation : This concept applies to species of plants that have evolved with special traits contributing to successful abilities to survive fires at various stages in their life cycles.

For example, serotinous cones, fire resistant bark, fire resistant foliage, or rapid growth and development enable various kinds of plants to survive and thrive in a fire prone environment. From the time that forests and lightning came into existence, fire has played an essential role. There is no question that many ecosystems would not exist in the absence of fire.

Now, after decades of fire suppression and other past management practices, the importance of reintroduction of fire to wildland ecosystems is widely accepted as essential practice. Two major events have been instrumental in turning policy and decision making around. One, scientists have observed that the recovery of forest plants and wildlife habitat since the eruption of Mount St.


Helens in Oregon--now a natural laboratory for studying disturbance in western forest ecosystems--clearly demonstrates the ability of ecosystems to recover, even from devastating catastrophic disturbance. Secondly, the fires in Yellowstone National Park, where nearly , acres burned for several months and eventually were extinguished by fall rains, resulted in a robust increase in quality habitat for wildlife, and restored plant communities long suppressed by fire suppression policy.

These seminal events, coupled with a growing increase in scientific research in the field of fire ecology, have informed agency decision making. The policy contains direction to control the fires we do not want, while promoting those we do. However, it is also essential to understand that logging after fire--called "salvage logging"--is highly detrimental to the natural recovery processes in the post-fire environment and can reverse natural recovery processes and eliminate the benefits of fire. Read more about salvage logging here. Few alternative treatments can compete with fire effectiveness to reduce unnatural fuel buildups, restore native plant communities, and improve fire resiliency, and fire is less costly than other types of treatments.

It is also most effective at reducing long-term smoke impacts to surrounding communities.

Forest Pattern and Ecological Process: A Synthesis of 25 Years of Research

Chemicals have many environmental risks associated with their use and are expensive. Mechanical treatments have similar problems and if not conducted properly can increase fire hazards. Prescribed fire is much more affordable with much less risk to the habitat and destruction of site and soil quality.

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What is Fire? Fire is the combination of heat, oxygen, fuel and an ignition source. Fuels include grasses, needles, leaves, brush and trees. Natural ignition sources in the Sierra Nevada generally involve lightning. Fire management officials are increasingly using fire to improve forest health and to protect communities. However, sometimes people also start uncontrolled fires through carelessness or arson.

Where and how quickly a fire moves depends on the terrain, weather and types of fuel. Fires burn faster up hillsides than they do on flat ground.

David Lindenmayer

The heat rising from the flames pre-heats the grasses, shrubs or trees on upslope. Like sheets of paper, grasses burn quickly, up to several miles per hour under extreme conditions.

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Larger fuels, such as logs, may take hours or even days to burn completely. While windswept flames can leap into the crowns of trees and burn entire trees in seconds, many fires merely creep along the ground slowly burning brush and forest litter. The diversity of plants and animals we enjoy in the forests and national parks depend upon fire. What may look at first like devastation soon becomes a panorama of new life.

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  • Fire starts critical natural processes by breaking down organic matter into soil nutrients. Soil, rejuvenated with nitrogen from ash, provides a fertile seedbed for plants. With less competition and more sunlight certain seedlings grow quickly. Wildland fire has great potential to change landscapes more often than volcanoes, earthquakes or even floods.

    Such forces of change are completely natural. Many plants and animals cannot survive without the cycles of fire or flooding to which they are adapted. If all fire is suppressed, fuel builds up and makes bigger fires inevitable. Under certain conditions, large, hot fires can threaten public safety, devastate property, damage natural and cultural resources, and be expensive and dangerous to fight.

    Forest policy stresses managing fire, not simply suppressing it. This means planning for the inevitable and promoting the use of fire as a land management tool. The goal is to restore fire's role as a dynamic and necessary natural process. Prescribed fire is one of the most important tools used to manage fire today.

    A scientific prescription for the fire, prepared in advance, describes its objectives, fuels, size and the ideal environmental conditions for it to burn. If it moves outside the predetermined area, the fire may be suppressed. Burning key areas in advance, thereby removing fuels from the path of future unwanted fires, can protect communities and make the forest more fire resistant.

    Not all fire is bad. In fact, the exclusion of naturally occurring, low intensity fire, over the last century has contributed significantly to the increased build up of surface fuels needles, limbs, cones, brush and increased wildfire intensity in recent decades. On public lands, prescribed fires are used to manage vegetation instead of lightning-caused fires. Prescribed burns are ignited to reduce hazardous fuels needles, brush, downed woody material, etc.

    Fire management may also choose to closely monitor naturally started fires, ignited by lightning, to meet specific resource objectives like the prescribed fires. This type of fire management is called Wildland Fire Use. In the National Parks of California many lightning-caused fires have are allowed to burn and die naturally each year regenerating the forest and reducing future risks. The question is, how can we better manage wildland fire so that people and communities are safe, while ecosystems are allowed to benefit from the annual seasons of flame?

    Forest Pattern and Ecological Process, David Lindenmayer,

    Most importantly, the only way fire will ever be successfully reintroduced is for the rural communities on the front lines to feel safe. Federal fire scientists have determined that it is the home and its immediate surroundings that principally determine the potential for home ignition during fires. Even so, communities will only feel safe when the land surrounding them--the community protection zone--is treated to reduce hazardous fuels through strategic thinning, brush removal, and prescribed burning.

    Fire scientists have determined that mechanical thinning without prescribed fire including fuel breaks does not effectively reduce fire behavior under extreme conditions Stephens They have also concluded that thinning or other mechanical treatments alone will not restore forest ecosystems Conservation Biology , Vol. The reintroduction of fire into the Sierra Nevada landscape is critical to solving the fire hazard that currently exists.

    Few alternative treatments can compete with fire from the standpoint of effectiveness, cost, and reducing long-term smoke impacts to surrounding communities. Chemicals are expensive and have associated environmental risks.

    Mechanical treatments have the same problems. The Sierra Nevada Framework uses prescribed fire as a key management tool in reducing surface fuels and ladder fuels brush and small trees to protect communities and to make the forest more resilient and healthy. Additional information about prescribed fire from the standpoint of smoke management, and our efforts to promote acceptance of short term air quality impacts from beneficial fire used to restore fire resiliency in the forests of the Sierra Nevada, can be found in the Managing Fire section of our website.

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    In recent years, fires in the Sierra Nevada have been breathlessly reported as being "catastrophic" with the entire forest being "destroyed" or burned up. On the nightly news, it is the catastrophic areas of fire that are shown because they are dramatic visual images. Unfortunately, this portrayal distorts the overall picture. On the ground, a far different picture emerges. Within the "fire perimeter"--the farthest outside edge of the forest affected by the fire and whatever suppression efforts are being conducted--there are usually some areas that have burned so hot that all vegetation is destroyed.

    These are the "catastrophic" or severe areas, but within the fire perimeter are larger areas of "moderate severity," "low severity," and even areas that have not burned at all. Fire severity and vegetation type are two variables that determine the impact a wildfire will have on the forest. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, many wildfires in the last decade in the Sierra have been primarily low-moderate in nature and are the kinds of fire we actually pay people to conduct as "fuels treatments" for forest health and fire risk reduction.

    Even areas of "high severity" provide important ecological functions. The black-backed woodpecker is just one species that needs burned over areas to forage and nest successfully. In northeast Washington, black-backed woodpeckers were 20 times more abundant in burned versus unburned forests Kreisel and Stein , and often were restricted to standing dead forests created by recent stand-replacement fires Hutto , Caton More information about the increasingly threatened black-backed woodpecker can be found here.

    The importance of leaving sufficient acreage of burnt forests un-logged after fire cannot be underestimated - for the maintenance of this and numerous other species of plants and wildlife.