, Volume 10, Issue 5, pp 673–687 | Cite as

Fire in the Riparian Zone: Characteristics and Ecological Consequences

  • Neil E. PettitEmail author
  • Robert J. Naiman


We review the current understandings of the frequency, spatial distributions, mechanisms, and ecological consequences of fire in riparian zones. Riparian zones are well known for influencing many ecological processes at local to landscape scales, and fire can have an important ecosystem-scale influence on them. Riparian zones differ from surrounding uplands in their biophysical templates, moisture regimes and disturbance regimes; as a consequence the characteristics and effects of fire are different than in adjacent uplands. Fire impacts on riparian zones vary proportionally with the severity and extent of burning in the catchment and are affected by stream size. Riparian zones can act as a buffer against fire and therefore as a refuge for fire-sensitive species. However, under some circumstances, such as dry pre-fire climatic conditions and the accumulation of dry fuel, riparian areas become corridors for fire movement. Fire incursion into riparian zones creates canopy gaps and drier conditions, which allow subsequent build up of dead wood and establishment of fire adapted species. In concert, this increases fuel loads and the probability of another fire. Secondary effects of riparian fire include altering nutrient fluxes and cycling, increasing sediment loads, and stimulating erosion. We conclude that riparian fires are potentially important in shaping ecological characteristics in many regions, but this is poorly quantified. A better understanding of riparian fire regimes is essential to assess the effects of fire in helping shape the complex ecological characteristics of riparian zones over the longer-term.


riparian fire vegetation kruger National park Pacific northwest ecological processes and consequences 



We thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for financial support, Professor James Agee (University of Washington) for informative discussions on fire ecology and fire in forests of the USA Pacific Northwest, and Navashni Govender (Kruger National Park, South Africa) for discussions and access to data and photographs of fires in Kruger. Also, we thank Professor James Agee, Dr Josh Latterell (University of Washington), Dr Alan Andersen (CSIRO) and Dr David Peterson (USDA-Forest Service) for highly constructive and comprehensive comments on earlier drafts.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Aquatic and Fishery SciencesUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.School of Environmental ScienceMurdoch UniversityPerthAustralia

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