- Descriptions of the fire regime in the Douglas-fir/western hemlock region of the Pacific Northwest traditionally have emphasized infrequent, predominantly stand-replacement fires and an associated linear pathway of stand development, where all stands proceed along a common pathway until reset by the next fire. Although such a description may apply in wetter parts of the region, recent fire-history research suggests drier parts of the region support a mixed-severity regime, where most fires have substantial representation of all severity classes and most stands experience at least one non-stand-replacing fire between stand-replacement events. This study combines field and modeling approaches to better understand the complex fire regime in the central western Cascades of Oregon. Stand-structure data and ages of more than 3,000 trees were collected at 124 stands throughout two study areas with physiography representative of western and eastern portions of the western Cascade Range. Major objectives were to (1) develop a conceptual model of fire-mediated pathways of stand development, (2) determine the strengths of influences of topography on spatial variation in the fire regime, (3) provide a stronger understanding of modeling approaches commonly used to gain insight into historical landscape structure, and (4) develop methods to predict trajectories of change in landscape age structure under a non-stationary fire regime.
In the study area, non-stand-replacing fire interspersed with infrequent, stand-replacement events led to a variety of even-aged and multi-cohort stands. The majority of stands (75%) had two or more age cohorts, where post-fire cohorts were dominated either by shade-intolerant species or shade-tolerant species, depending largely on fire severity. Age structure, used as a proxy for the cumulative effects of fire on stand development, showed a moderately strong relationship to topography overall, but relationships were strongest at both extremes of a continuum of the influences of fire frequency and severity on stand development and relatively weak in the middle. High topographic relief in the eastern part of the western Cascades may amplify variation in microclimate and fuel moisture, leading to a finer-scale spatial variation in fire spread and behavior, and thus a broader range of stand age structures and stronger fidelity of age structure to slope position and terrain shape in the deeply dissected terrain of the eastern part of the western Cascades than in the gentler terrain of the western part.
In the modeling component of my research, I was able to use analytical procedures to reproduce much of the output provided by a stochastic, spatial simulation model previously applied to evaluate historical landscape structure of the Oregon Coast Range. The analytical approximation provides an explicit representation of the effects of input parameters and interactions among them. The increased transparency of model function given by such an analysis may facilitate communication of model output and uncertainty among ecologists and forest managers.
Analytical modeling approaches were expanded to characterize trajectories of change in forest age structure in response to changes in the fire regime. Following a change in fire frequency, the proportion of the landscape covered by stands of a given age class is expected to change along a non-monotonic trajectory rather than transition directly to its equilibrium abundance under the new regime. Under some scenarios of change in fire frequency, the time for the expected age distribution of a landscape to converge to the equilibrium distribution of the new regime can be determined based only on the magnitude of change in fire frequency, regardless of the initial value or the direction of change.
The theoretical modeling exercises provide insight into historical trends in the study area. Compiled across all sample sites, the age distribution of Douglas-fir trees was strongly bimodal. Peaks of establishment dates in the 16th and 19th centuries were synchronous between the two study areas, and each peak of Douglas-fir establishment coincides with one of the two periods of region-wide extensive fire identified in a previous synthesis of fire-history studies. The modeling exercises support the development of such a bimodal age distribution in response to centennial-scale changes in fire frequency, and they illustrate how the relative abundance of different stand-structure types may have varied over the last several centuries.