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Article << Previous     |     Next >>   Contents Vol 17(6)

Ecological effects of large fires on US landscapes: benefit or catastrophe?A

Robert E. Keane A I, James K. Agee B, Peter Fulé C, Jon E. Keeley D, Carl Key E, Stanley G. Kitchen F, Richard Miller G, Lisa A. Schulte H

A USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, 5775 Highway 10 West, Missoula, MT 59808, USA.
B College of Forest Resources, Box 352100, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA. Email: jagee@u.washington.edu
C School of Forestry and Ecological Restoration Institute, Northern Arizona University, PO Box 15018, Flagstaff, AZ 86011-5018, USA. Email: Fule@nau.edu
D US Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center, Sequoia-Kings Canyon Field Station, 47050 Generals Highway, Three Rivers, CA 93271, USA. Email: jon_keeley@usgs.gov
E US Geological Survey, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, c/o Glacier National Park, West Glacier, MT 59936-0128, USA. Email: carl_key@usgs.gov
F USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Forestry Sciences Laboratory, Provo, UT 84606-1856, USA. Email: skitchen@fs.fed.us
G Oregon State University, Department of Rangeland Ecology and Management, Corvallis, OR 97331-2218, USA. Email: Richard.Miller@oregonstate.edu
H Natural Resource Ecology and Management, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011-3221, USA. Email: lschulte@iastate.edu
I Corresponding author. Email: rkeane@fs.fed.us
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The perception is that today’s large fires are an ecological catastrophe because they burn vast areas with high intensities and severities. However, little is known of the ecological impacts of large fires on both historical and contemporary landscapes. The present paper presents a review of the current knowledge of the effects of large fires in the United States by important ecosystems written by regional experts. The ecosystems are (1) ponderosa pine–Douglas-fir, (2) sagebrush–grasslands, (3) piñon–juniper, (4) chaparral, (5) mixed-conifer, and (6) spruce–fir. This review found that large fires were common on most historical western US landscapes and they will continue to be common today with exceptions. Sagebrush ecosystems are currently experiencing larger, more severe, and more frequent large fires compared to historical conditions due to exotic cheatgrass invasions. Historical large fires in south-west ponderosa pine forest created a mixed severity mosaic dominated by non-lethal surface fires while today’s large fires are mostly high severity crown fires. While large fires play an important role in landscape ecology for most regions, their importance is much less in the dry piñon–juniper forests and sagebrush–grasslands. Fire management must address the role of large fires in maintaining the health of many US fire-dominated ecosystems.

Keywords: fire effects, fire regimes, megafires.

A The use of trade or firm names in the present paper is for reader information and does not imply endorsement by the US Department of Agriculture of any product or service. The current paper was partly written and prepared by US Government employees on official time, and therefore is in the public domain and not subject to copyright.
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