, Volume 18, Issue 5, pp 465-486

Mixed-severity fire regime in a high-elevation forest of Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA

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Abstract

Fire regime characteristics of high-elevation forests on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona, were reconstructed from fire scar analysis, remote sensing, tree age, and forest structure measurements, a first attempt at detailed reconstruction of the transition from surface to stand-replacing fire patterns in the Southwest. Tree densities and fire-/non-fire-initiated groups were highly mixed over the landscape, so distinct fire-created stands could not be delineated from satellite imagery or the oldest available aerial photos. Surface fires were common from 1700 to 1879 in the 4,400 ha site, especially on S and W aspects. Fire dates frequently coincided with fire dates measured at study sites at lower elevation, suggesting that pre-1880 fire sizes may have been very large. Large fires, those scarring 25% or more of the sample trees, were relatively infrequent, averaging 31 years between burns. Four of the five major regional fire years occurred in the 1700s, followed by a 94-year gap until 1879. Fires typically occurred in significantly dry years (Palmer Drought Stress Index), with severe drought in major regional fire years. Currently the forest is predominantly spruce-fir, mixed conifer, and aspen. In contrast, dendroecological reconstruction of past forest structure showed that the forest in 1880 was very open, corresponding closely with historical (1910) accounts of severe fires leaving partially denuded landscapes. Age structure and species composition were used to classify sampling points into fire-initiated and non-fire-initiated groups. Tree groups on nearly 60% of the plots were fire-initiated; the oldest such groups appeared to have originated after severe fires in 1782 or 1785. In 1880, all fire-initiated groups were less than 100 years old and nearly 25% of the groups were less than 20 years old. Non-fire-initiated groups were significantly older (oldest 262 years in 1880), dominated by ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, or white fir, and occurred preferentially on S and W slopes. The mixed-severity fire regime, transitioning from lower-elevation surface fires to mixed surface and stand-replacing fire at higher elevations, appeared not to have been stable over the temporal and spatial scales of this study. Information about historical fire regime and forest structure is valuable for managers but the information is probably less specific and stable for high-elevation forests than for low-elevation ponderosa pine forests.

This revised version was published online in May 2005 with corrections to the Cover Date.