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Strong Legacy Effects of Prior Burn Severity on Forest Resilience to a High-Severity Fire

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Abstract

Legacy effects from one disturbance may influence successional pathways by amplifying or buffering forest regeneration after the next disturbance. We assessed vegetation and tree regeneration in non-serotinous Sierra lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. murrayana) stands after a 1984 wildfire which burned with variable severity and again after a high-severity subsequent fire in 2012. The legacy effects of the 1984 fire were amplified; seedlings and saplings were abundant in areas initially burned at low severity (1267 stems ha−1) despite high reburn severity, but regeneration was low in areas twice burned at high severity (31 stems ha−1). Our results suggest that the severity of the 1984 fire may have influenced post-2012 tree regeneration by creating variable fuel loading, which may have affected soils, litter cover and shade after the 2012 fire and therefore affected seedling establishment and survival. A canopy seed bank of unburnt cones from trees killed by the 2012 fire potentially contributed to a strong effect of prior burn severity on regeneration after the 2012 fire despite a lack of serotinous or resprouting tree species, although the influence of this canopy seedbank was likely limited to the year following the fire. Our results suggest that a low- to moderate-severity fire increases forest resilience relative to a high-severity fire even when the next fire burns at high severity.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Sam Black and Alex Nawn for field assistance and Steve Buckley and Calvin Farris for logistic support. In addition, we thank three anonymous reviewers whose insightful comments improved the manuscript. Financial support for this research was provided by the National Park Service (Cooperative Agreement 18730), the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station (Cooperative Agreement 17-JV-11272167-048) and The Pennsylvania State University.

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Correspondence to Lucas B. Harris.

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LBH and AHT collected data, LBH performed analysis and wrote the first draft of the manuscript, and all authors designed the study and contributed substantially to revisions.

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Harris, L.B., Drury, S.A. & Taylor, A.H. Strong Legacy Effects of Prior Burn Severity on Forest Resilience to a High-Severity Fire. Ecosystems 24, 774–787 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-020-00548-x

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