Fire exclusion in historically frequent-fire forests of the southwestern United States has altered forest structure and increased the probability of high-severity fire. Warmer and drier conditions, coupled with dispersal distance limitations, are impeding tree seedling establishment and survival following high-severity fire. High-severity patches are commonly dominated by non-forest vegetation, a state that can be reinforced by subsequent fire events. We sought to determine the influence of fire probability on post-fire vegetation development in a severely burned landscape in New Mexico, USA. We used LANDIS-II to simulate three fire probability scenarios—historical fire probability, contemporary fire probability, and the mean of the two—with contemporary climate. As fire probability increased, the mean size of the largest fires and the mean landscape fire severity increased. These changes in fire characteristics resulted in decreased total aboveground biomass and photosynthetic capacity on the landscape after 50 years. Additionally, the distribution of individual species biomass shifted, with early successional species, especially those that resprout after fire, increasing as a fraction of total biomass with increasing fire occurrence. Counter to empirical data, our simulations did not show a conifer establishment limitation, suggesting a source of uncertainty that will need to be addressed to improve projections of forest dynamics under future climate. Even without limited conifer regeneration, continued increases in fire frequency are likely to favor resprouting species and result in a loss of forest biomass and ecosystem productivity in this southwestern forest landscape.
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The data and code are available at https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.qrfj6q5b6.
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This work was supported by the Joint Fire Science Program under Project JFSP 16-1-05-8 and the Interagency Carbon Cycle Science Program Grant No. 2017-67004-26486/Project Accession No. 1012226 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
ARK, MDH and CDA conceived the study. ARK and MDH designed the study and wrote the paper. ARK performed research and analyzed data. CCR contributed to the physiological parameterization. DJK contributed the fire model parameterization. All authors contributed to the manuscript.
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Keyser, A.R., Krofcheck, D.J., Remy, C.C. et al. Simulated Increases in Fire Activity Reinforce Shrub Conversion in a Southwestern US Forest. Ecosystems 23, 1702–1713 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-020-00498-4
- Fire severity
- Fire probability
- Pinus ponderosa
- Quercus gambelii
- Populus tremuloides
- Post-fire recovery
- Conifer regeneration
- Shrub conversion