Interacting Disturbances: Wildfire Severity Affected by Stage of Forest Disease Invasion

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Ecological Applications

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Sudden oak death (SOD) is an emerging forest disease causing extensive tree mortality in coastal California forests. Recent California wildfires provided an opportunity to test a major assumption underlying discussions of SOD and land management: SOD mortality will increase fire severity. We examined prefire fuels from host species in a forest monitoring plot network in Big Sur, California (USA), to understand the interactions between disease-caused mortality and wildfire severity during the 2008 Basin Complex wildfire. Detailed measurements of standing dead woody stems and downed woody debris 1–2 years prior to the Basin fire provided a rare picture of the increased fuels attributable to SOD mortality. Despite great differences in host fuel abundance, we found no significant difference in burn severity between infested and uninfested plots. Instead, the relationship between SOD and fire reflected the changing nature of the disease impacts over time. Increased SOD mortality contributed to overstory burn severity only in areas where the pathogen had recently invaded. Where longer-term disease establishment allowed dead material to fall and accumulate, increasing log volumes led to increased substrate burn severity. These patterns help inform forest management decisions regarding fire, both in Big Sur and in other areas of California as the pathogen continues to expand throughout coastal forests.