Landscape Ecology

, Volume 22, Supplement 1, pp 5–24 | Cite as

Re-examining fire severity relations in pre-management era mixed conifer forests: inferences from landscape patterns of forest structure

  • Paul F. HessburgEmail author
  • R. Brion Salter
  • Kevin M. James
Research Article


For some time, ecologists have known that spatial patterns of forest structure reflected disturbance and recovery history, disturbance severity and underlying influences of environmental gradients. In spite of this awareness, historical forest structure has been little used to expand knowledge of historical fire severity. Here, we used forest structure to predict pre-management era fire severity across three biogeoclimatic zones in eastern Washington State, USA, that contained extensive mixed conifer forests. We randomly selected 10% of the subwatersheds in each zone, delineated patch boundaries, and photo-interpreted the vegetation attributes of every patch in each subwatershed using the oldest available stereo-aerial photography. We statistically reconstructed the vegetation of any patch showing evidence of early selective harvesting, and then classified them as to their most recent fire severity. Classification used published percent canopy mortality definitions and a dichotomized procedure that considered the overstory and understory canopy cover and size class attributes of a patch, and the fire tolerance of its cover type. Mixed severity fires were most prevalent, regardless of forest type. The structure of mixed conifer patches, in particular, was formed by a mix of disturbance severities. In moist mixed conifer, stand replacement effects were more widespread in patches than surface fire effects, while in dry mixed conifer, surface fire effects were more widespread by nearly 2:1. However, evidence for low severity fires as the primary influence, or of abundant old park-like patches, was lacking in both the dry and moist mixed conifer forests. The relatively low abundance of old, park-like or similar forest patches, high abundance of young and intermediate-aged patches, and widespread evidence of partial stand and stand-replacing fire suggested that variable fire severity and non-equilibrium patch dynamics were primarily at work.


Fire severity Mixed conifer forests Dry forests Non-equilibrium dynamics Mixed severity fire Ecoregions Inland Northwest USA Historical range of variability 



We thank Dave W. Peterson and Richy Harrod for helpful discussions, and Bruce Rieman, Bill Romme, Jim Agee, Tom Spies, Monica Turner, Kerry Wood, Don McKenzie, and four anonymous reviewers for insightful comments. We are solely responsible for data interpretation and the conclusions. This research was funded by the National Fire Plan and USDA Forest Service, PNW Research Station-RWU-4577.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul F. Hessburg
    • 1
    Email author
  • R. Brion Salter
    • 1
  • Kevin M. James
    • 1
  1. 1.Pacific Northwest Research StationUSDA Forest ServiceWenatcheeUSA

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