, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp 59-77

Landscape dynamics in crown fire ecosystems

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Abstract

Crown fires create broad-scale patterns in vegetation by producing a patch mosaic of stand age classes, but the spread and behavior of crown fires also may be constrained by spatial patterns in terrain and fuels across the landscape. In this review, we address the implications of landscape heterogeneity for crown fire behavior and the ecological effects of crown fires over large areas. We suggest that fine-scale mechanisms of fire spread can be extrapolated to make broad-scale predictions of landscape pattern by coupling the knowledge obtained from mechanistic and empirical fire behavior models with spatially-explicit probabilistic models of fire spread. Climatic conditions exert a dominant control over crown fire behavior and spread, but topographic and physiographic features in the landscape and the spatial arrangement and types of fuels have a strong influence on fire spread, especially when burning conditions (e.g., fuel moisture and wind) are not extreme. General trends in crown fire regimes and stand age class distributions can be observed across continental, latitudinal, and elevational gradients. Crown fires are more frequent in regions having more frequent and/or severe droughts, and younger stands tend to dominate these landscapes. Landscapes dominated by crown fires appear to be nonequilibrium systems. This nonequilibrium condition presents a significant challenge to land managers, particularly when the implications of potential changes in the global climate are considered. Potential changes in the global climate may alter not only the frequency of crown fires but also their severity. Crown fires rarely consume the entire forest, and the spatial heterogeneity of burn severity patterns creates a wide range of local effects and is likely to influence plant reestablishment as well as many other ecological processes. Increased knowledge of ecological processes at regional scales and the effects of landscape pattern on fire dynamics should provide insight into our understanding of the behavior and consequences of crown fires.