Fire and Landscape Diversity in Subalpine Forests of Yellowstone National Park

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Ecological Monographs

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Fire history was determined by fire scar analysis in a subalpine watershed in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA. Evidence was found for 15 fires since 1600, of which 7 were manor fires that burned > 4 ha, destroyed the existing forest, and initiated secondary succession. Most of the upland forest area was burned by large, destructive fires in the middle and late 1700's. Fires since then have been small and have occurred at long intervals. Fire frequency in this area is partly controlled by changes in the fuel complex during succession. Fuels capable of supporting a crown fire usually do not develop until a stand is 300-400 yr old, and ignitions prior to that time usually extinguish naturally before covering more than a few hectares. Thereafter a destructive crown fires is likely whenever lightning ignites small fuels during warm, dry, windy weather. On the extensive subalpine plateaus of Yellowstone National Park there appears to be a natural fire cycle of 300-400 yr in which large areas burn during a short period., followed by a long, relatively fire-free period during which a highly flammable fuel complex again develops. The study area appears to be about midway between major fire events in this cycle. This, rather than human fire suppression, apparently is the major reason for the small number and size of fires in the area during the last 180 yr.