Title

Fire severity and the legacy of mountain pine beetle outbreak: high-severity fire peaks with mixed live and dead vegetation

Document Type

Article

Journal/Book Title/Conference

Environmental Research Letters

Publication Date

Fall 11-24-2022

Issue

12

Volume

17

Abstract

Bark beetle outbreaks and wildfires are two of the most prevalent disturbances that influence tree mortality, regeneration, and successional trajectories in western North American forests. Subboreal forests have experienced broad overlaps in these disturbances, and recent wildfires have burned through landscapes with substantial tree mortality from prior outbreaks. This study investigated how fuel conditions associated with mountain pine beetle outbreaks influence the probability of high burn severity (i.e. stand-replacing fire) across a range of fire weather conditions in subboreal forests of central interior British Columbia, Canada. We focused on three large fires that occurred in 2012, 2013, and 2014. We characterized outbreak severity, outbreak-influenced prefire vegetation, and subsequent burn severity using Landsat spectral vegetation indices, high-resolution imagery, and field observations. Substantial portions of the prefire landscape contained mixtures of live and dead vegetation created by variable beetle damage and vegetation response—spatial patterns that are related to, but distinct from, peak outbreak severity. We evaluated drivers—fuels, weather, and topography—of high-severity fire under 'extreme,' 'moderate,' and 'benign' fire weather conditions (i.e. burning conditions) using Boosted Regression Trees. While fire weather was a primary driver in most cases, prefire vegetation was an influential predictor variable across all burning conditions, and the probability of high-severity fire was highest when prefire vegetation was a mixture of tree mortality from bark beetles and live vegetation. Thus, while weather and drought are important drivers of wildfires in subboreal forests, bottom-up drivers of elevation and vegetation, including the fuel legacies of bark beetle outbreaks, are crucial factors influencing high-severity burning. The legacy of recent bark beetle outbreaks will continue for decades on these landscapes, affecting fuel structures, future wildfires, forest dynamics, and the broader social-ecological systems of the region.

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