Comparison of the Higher-Severity Fire Regime in Historical (A.D. 1800s) and Modern (A.D. 1984–2009) Montane Forests Across 624,156 ha of the Colorado Front Range

Abstract

There are concerns that recent fires, following a century of land uses, are burning in dry western forests in an uncharacteristic manner with large patches of higher-severity fire affecting long-term ecosystem dynamics. For example, it is well documented that a mixed-severity fire regime predominated over montane forests of the Colorado Front Range. However, much about the historical fire regime is unknown including the size, frequency, and distribution of higher-severity fires. We addressed these questions utilizing data from the original land surveyors who recorded locations of burned timber along survey lines resulting in a coarse-scale transect of fire occurrence across 624,156 ha. We reconstructed higher-severity burn patches, size distribution, and fire rotation for the 1800s (A.D. 1809–1883) and compared to the characteristics of modern fires over a recent 26-year period (A.D. 1984–2009) taken from remotely sensed data. We found the historical geometric mean higher-severity patch was 170.9 ha and the maximum patch size was 8,331 ha; the higher-severity fire rotation was 248.7 years. In addition, we confirmed that higher-severity fires were historically less common at elevations below 2,200 m. Modern fires had a geometric mean patch size of 90.0 ha (patches >20 ha) and a maximum size of 5,183 ha; the higher-severity fire rotation was 431 years. The distributions of higher-severity patches were only 63.5% similar, as the historical distribution had fewer small patches and more large patches. The mixed-severity fire regime, historically, included a significant portion of higher-severity fire and large burn patches; modern fires appear to be within the range of historical variability.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3

References

  1. Agee JK. 1993. Fire ecology of Pacific Northwest forests. Washington, DC: Island Press. 505 p.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Allen CD, Savage M, Falk DA, Suckling KF, Swetnam TW, Schulke T, Stacey PB, Morgan P, Hoffman M, Klingel JT. 2002. Ecological restoration of southwestern ponderosa pine ecosystems: a broad perspective. Ecol Appl 12:1418–33.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Amoroso MM, Daniels LD, Bataineh M, Andison DW. 2011. Evidence of mixed-severity fires in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains of west-central Alberta, Canada. For Ecol Manage 262:2240–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Baker WL. 2009. Fire ecology in Rocky Mountain landscapes. Washington, DC: Island Press. 632 p.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Baker WL. 2012. Implications of spatially extensive historical evidence from land surveys for restoring dry forests of the Oregon eastern Cascades. Ecosphere 3: art 23.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Baker WL, Ehle D. 2001. Uncertainty in surface-fire history: the case of ponderosa pine forests in the western United States. Can J For Res 31:1205–26.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Baker WL, Veblen TT, Sherriff RL. 2007. Fire, fuels and restoration of ponderosa pine–Douglas fir forests in the Rocky Mountains, USA. J Biogeogr 34:251–69.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Barrett SW. 1988. Fire suppression’s effects on forest succession within a central Idaho wilderness. West J Appl For 3:76–80.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Barry RG. 1973. Climatological transect on the east slope of the Front Range, Colorado. Arct Alp Res 5:89–110.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Brown PM, Kaufmann MR, Shepperd WD. 1999. Long-term, landscape patterns of past fire events in a montane ponderosa pine forest of central Colorado. Landsc Ecol 14:513–32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Brown PM, Wienk CL, Symstad AJ. 2008. Fire and forest history at Mount Rushmore. Ecol Appl 18:1984–99.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Canham CD, Loucks OL. 1984. Catastrophic windthrow in the presettlement forests of Wisconsin. Ecology 65:803–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Cocke AE, Fulé PZ, Crouse JE. 2005. Comparison of burn severity assessments using differenced normalized burn ratio and ground data. Int J Wildland Fire 14:189–98.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Conedera M, Tinner W, Neff C, Meurer M, Dickens AF, Krebs P. 2009. Reconstructing past fire regimes: methods, applications, and relevance to fire management and conservation. Quat Sci Rev 28:555–76.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Cui W, Perera AH. 2008. What do we know about forest fire size distribution, and why is this knowledge useful for forest management? Int J Wildland Fire 17:234–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. De Vries PG. 1986. Sampling theory for forest inventory: a teach-yourself course. Berlin: Springer. 399 p.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  17. Dillon GK, Holden ZA, Morgan P, Crimmins MA, Heyerdahl EK, Luce CH. 2011. Both topography and climate affected forest and woodland burn severity in two regions of the western US, 1984 to 2006. Ecosphere 2: art 130.

  18. Ehle DS, Baker WL. 2003. Disturbance and stand dynamics in ponderosa pine forests in Rocky Mountain National Park, USA. Ecol Monogr 73:543–66.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Foster DR, Knight DH, Franklin JF. 1998. Landscape patterns and legacies resulting from large, infrequent forest disturbances. Ecosystems 1:497–510.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Galatowitsch SM. 1990. Using the original land survey notes to reconstruct presettlement landscapes in the American West. Great Basin Nat 50:181–91.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Graham RT. 2003. Hayman fire case study. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, RMRS-GTR-114. 396 p.

  22. Hadley KS. 1994. The role of disturbance, topography, and forest structure in the development of a montane forest landscape. Bull Torrey Bot Club 121:47–61.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Hadley KS, Veblen TT. 1993. Stand response to western spruce budworm and Douglas-fir bark beetle outbreaks, Colorado Front Range. Can J For Res 23:479–91.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Hessburg P, Salter R, James K. 2007. Re-examining fire severity relations in pre-management era mixed conifer forests: inferences from landscape patterns of forest structure. Landsc Ecol 22:5–24.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Huckaby LS, Kaufmann MR, Stoker JM, Fornwalt PJ. 2001. Landscape patterns of montane forest age structure relative to fire history at Cheesman Lake in the Colorado Front Range. In: Vance RK, Edminster CB, Covington WW, Blake JA, Eds. Ponderosa pine ecosystems restoration and conservation: steps toward stewardship; 2000 April 25–27. USDA Forest Service, Proceedings, RMRS-P-29. pp 19–27.

  26. Hunter ML Jr. 1993. Natural fire regimes as spatial models for managing boreal forests. Biol Conserv 65:115–20.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Jack, JG. 1900. Pikes Peak, Plum Creek, and South Platte reserves. Twentieth annual report of the United States Geological Survey to the Secretary of the Interior, 1898–1899. United States Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

  28. Johnson EA, Gutsell SL. 1994. Fire frequency models, methods and interpretations. Adv Ecol Res 25:239–87.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Kaufmann MR, Fornwalt PJ, Huckaby LS, Stoker JM. 2001. Cheesman Lake—a historical ponderosa pine landscape guiding restoration in the South Platte Watershed of the Colorado Front Range. In: Vance RK, Edminster CB, Covington WW, Blake JA, Eds. Ponderosa pine ecosystems restoration and conservation: steps toward stewardship; 2000 April 25–27. USDA Forest Service, Proceedings, RMRS-P-29. pp 9–18.

  30. Kaufmann MR, Veblen TT, Romme WH. 2006. Historical fire regimes in ponderosa pine forests of the Colorado Front Range, and recommendations for ecological restoration and fuels management. Front Range fuels treatment partnership roundtable, findings of the Ecology Workgroup. www.frftp.org/roundtable/pipo.pdf. Accessed 1 April 2012.

  31. Keith RP, Veblen TT, Schoennagel TL, Sherriff RL. 2010. Understory vegetation indicates historic fire regimes in ponderosa pine-dominated ecosystems in the Colorado Front Range. J Veg Sci 21:488–99.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Kitzberger T, Brown PM, Heyerdahl EK, Swetnam TW, Veblen TT. 2007. Contingent Pacific–Atlantic Ocean influence on multicentury wildfire synchrony over western North America. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104:543–8.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  33. Kurzel BP, Veblen TT, Kulakowski D. 2007. A typology of stand structure and dynamics of quaking aspen in northwestern Colorado. For Ecol Manage 252:176–90.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Landres PB, Morgan P, Swanson FJ. 1999. Overview of the use of natural variability concepts in managing ecological systems. Ecol Appl 9:1179–88.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Langley AN. 2004. An assessment of the historic land survey notes and their utility in geographical studies. Master’s Thesis. Missoula: University of Montana.

  36. Lentile LB, Smith FW, Shepperd WD. 2005. Patch structure, fire-scar formation, and tree regeneration in a large mixed-severity fire in the South Dakota Black Hills, USA. Can J For Res 35:2875–85.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Lorimer CG. 1980. The use of land survey records in estimating presettlement fire frequency. In: Stokes MA, Dieterich JH, Eds. Proceedings of the Fire History Workshop, October 20–24, 1980, Tucson, AZ. USDA Forest Service, General Technical Report, RM-GTR-81. pp 57–62.

  38. Lowry JH, Ramsey RD, Boykin K, Bradford D, Comer P, Falzarano S, Kepner W, Kirby J, Langs L, Prior-Magee J, Manis G, O’Brien L, Sajwaj T, Thomas KA, Rieth W, Schrader S, Schrupp D, Schultz K, Thompson B, Velasquez C, Wallace C, Waller E, Wolk B. 2005. Southwest Regional Gap Analysis Project: final report on land cover mapping methods. Logan (UT): Utah State University.

  39. Miller JD, Safford HD, Crimmins M, Thode AE. 2009. Quantitative evidence for increasing forest fire severity in the Sierra Nevada and Southern Cascade Mountains, California and Nevada, USA. Ecosystems 12:16–32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Megown K, Finco M, Brewer K, Schwind B. 2011. Accelerated remeasurement and evaluation of burned areas. Wildfire Today 71:9–11.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Moloney KA, Levin SA. 1996. The effects of disturbance architecture on landscape-level population dynamics. Ecology 77:375–94.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Moritz MA, Morais ME, Summerell LA, Carlson JM, Doyle J. 2005. Wildfires, complexity, and highly optimized tolerance. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 102:17912–17.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  43. Peet RK. 1981. Forest vegetation of the Colorado Front Range. Plant Ecol 45:3–75.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Perry DA, Hessburg PF, Skinner CN, Spies TA, Stephens SL, Taylor AH, Franklin JF, McComb B, Riegel G. 2011. The ecology of mixed severity fire regimes in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. For Ecol Manage 262:703–17.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Rhodes JJ, Baker WL. 2008. Fire probability, fuel treatment effectiveness and ecological tradeoffs in western US public forests. Open For Sci J 1:1–7.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Romme WH, Kaufmann M, Veblen TT, Sherriff R, Regan CM. 2003. Ecological effects of the Hayman Fire. Part II. Historical (pre-1860) and current (1860–2002) forest and landscape structure. In: Graham RT, Ed. Hayman fire case study. USDA Forest Service, General Technical Report RMRS-GTR-14. pp 196–203.

  47. Schoennagel T, Nelson CR. 2011. Restoration relevance of recent National Fire Plan treatments in forests of the western United States. Front Ecol Environ 9:271–7.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Schoennagel T, Sherriff RL, Veblen TT. 2011. Fire history and tree recruitment in the Colorado Front Range upper montane zone: implications for forest restoration. Ecol Appl 21:2210–22.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Schulte LA, Mladenoff DJ. 2001. The original US public land survey records: their use and limitations in reconstructing presettlement vegetation. J For 99:5–10.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Schulte LA, Mladenoff DJ, Burrows SN, Sickley TA, Nordheim EV. 2005. Spatial controls of Pre-Euro-American wind and fire disturbance in Northern Wisconsin (USA) forest landscapes. Ecosystems 8:73–94.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Sherriff R. 2004. The historic range of variability of ponderosa pine in the northern Colorado Front Range: past fire types and fire effects. Ph.D. Dissertation. Boulder: University of Colorado.

  52. Sherriff RL, Veblen TT. 2006. Ecological effects of changes in fire regimes in Pinus ponderosa ecosystems in the Colorado Front Range. J Veg Sci 17:705–18.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Sherriff RL, Veblen TT. 2007. A spatially-explicit reconstruction of historical fire occurrence in the ponderosa pine zone of the Colorado Front Range. Ecosystems 10:311–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Sherriff RL, Veblen TT. 2008. Variability in fire–climate relationships in ponderosa pine forests in the Colorado Front Range. Int J Wildland Fire 17:50–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Sokal RR, Rohlf FJ. 1995. Biometry: the principles and practice of statistics in biological research. 3rd edn. New York: W.H. Freeman.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Stewart LO. 1935. Public land surveys: history, instructions, methods. Ames (IA): Collegiate Press, Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Stoeser DB, Green GN, Morath LN, Heran WD, Wilson AB, Moore DW, Van Gosen BS. 2005. Preliminary integrated geologic map databases for the United States Central States: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana. US Geological Survey Open-File Report, Denver, CO.

  58. Turner MG, Romme WH. 1994. Landscape dynamics in crown fire ecosystems. Landsc Ecol 9:59–77.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Turner MG, Hargrove WW, Gardner RH, Romme WH. 1994. Effects of fire on landscape heterogeneity in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. J Veg Sci 5:731–42.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Turner MG, Romme WH, Gardner RH, Hargrove WH. 1997. Effects of fire size and pattern on early succession in Yellowstone National Park. Ecol Monogr 67:411–33.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Turner MG, Baker WL, Peterson CJ, Peet RK. 1998. Factors influencing succession: lessons from large, infrequent natural disturbances. Ecosystems 1:511–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Vale TR. 2002. Fire, native peoples, and the natural landscape. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Veblen TT, Lorenz DC. 1986. Anthropogenic disturbance and recovery patterns in montane forests, Colorado Front Range. Phys Geogr 7:1–24.

    Google Scholar 

  64. Veblen TT, Kitzberger T, Donnegan J. 2000. Climate and human influence on fire regimes in pondersa pine forests in the Colorado Front Range. Ecol Appl 10:1178–95.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Weber UM, Schweingruber FH. 1995. A dendroecological reconstruction of western spruce budworm outbreaks (Choristoneura occidentalis) in the Front Range, Colorado, from 1720 to 1986. Trees Str Funct 9:204–13.

    Google Scholar 

  66. West E. 1998. The contested plains: Indians, goldseekers, & the rush to Colorado. Lawrence (KS): University Press of Kansas.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Westerling AL, Hidalgo HG, Cayan DR, Swetnam TW. 2006. Warming and earlier spring increase Western US forest wildfire activity. Science 313:940–3.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  68. White PS, Jentsch A. 2001. The search for generality in studies of disturbance and ecosystem dynamics. Prog Bot 62:399–450.

    Google Scholar 

  69. White MA, Host GE. 2008. Forest disturbance frequency and patch structure from pre-European settlement to present in the Mixed Forest Province of Minnesota, USA. Can J For Res 38:2212–26.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Whittaker RH. 1952. A study of summer foliage insect communities in the Great Smoky Mountains. Ecol Monogr 22:1–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  71. Whitlock C, Higuera PE, McWethy DB, Briles CE. 2010. Paleoecological perspectives on fire ecology: revisiting the fire-regime concept. Open Ecol J 3:6–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Williams MA, Baker WL. 2010. Bias and error in using survey records for ponderosa pine landscape restoration. J Biogeogr 37:707–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Williams MA, Baker WL. 2012. Spatially extensive reconstructions show variable-severity fire and heterogeneous structure in historical western United States dry forests. Glob Ecol Biogeogr. doi:10.1111/j.1466-8238.2011.00750.x.

  74. Zhang Q, Pregitzer KS, Reed DD. 1999. Catastrophic disturbance in the presettlement forests of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Can J For Res 29:106–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

This study is based upon work supported by the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, US Department of Agriculture, under Agreement No. 2007-3501-18307 and by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. BCS-0715070 and EPS-0447681.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mark A. Williams.

Additional information

Author Contribution

MAW designed the study, collected field data, analyzed data, and wrote the manuscript; WLB conceived the study, assisted with collection of field data, and edited the text.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 16 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Williams, M.A., Baker, W.L. Comparison of the Higher-Severity Fire Regime in Historical (A.D. 1800s) and Modern (A.D. 1984–2009) Montane Forests Across 624,156 ha of the Colorado Front Range. Ecosystems 15, 832–847 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-012-9549-8

Download citation

Keywords

  • fire ecology
  • fire regime
  • fire rotation
  • fire size-class distribution
  • front range
  • General Land Office survey
  • mixed-severity
  • Pinus ponderosa