Research Project Summary: Fire effects and a refined fire prescription after low-intensity spring fires in low-elevation mixed-conifer forests of Yosemite National Park, California



RESEARCH PROJECT SUMMARY CITATION:
Fryer, Janet L., compiler. 2007. Research Project Summary: Fire effects and a refined fire prescription after low-intensity spring fires in low-elevation mixed-conifer forests of Yosemite National Park, California. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [].

Sources: Unless otherwise indicated, the information in this Research Project Summary comes from the following papers:

van Wagtendonk, Jan W. 1972. Fire and fuel relationships in mixed conifer ecosystems of Yosemite National Park. Berkeley, CA: University of California. 163 p. Dissertation. [6].

van Wagtendonk, Jan W. 1974. Refined burning prescriptions for Yosemite National Park. National Park Service Occasional Paper Number 2. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. 21 p. [4].

van Wagtendonk, Jan W. 1977. Fire management in the Yosemite mixed-conifer ecosystem. In: Mooney, Harold A.; Conrad, C. Eugene, technical coordinators. Proceedings of the symposium on the environmental consequences of fire and fuel management in Mediterranean ecosystems; 1977 August 1-5; Palo Alto, CA. Gen. Tech. Rep. WO-3. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: 459-463. [5].

SPECIES INCLUDED IN THE SUMMARY:
See the Appendix.

STUDY LOCATION:
This study compared the effects of 2 types of prescribed fire in 4 fuel types. There were 2 study sites, located in the Wawona and Yosemite Valley areas of Yosemite National Park, northern California [4,6].

SITE DESCRIPTION:
Wawona―Elevation is 1,400 m, and slopes mostly face the southwest. The Wawona study site was stratified into 3 fuel types based on the dominant understory species and/or primary forest floor cover: Sierra mountain misery (Chamaebatia foliolosa) draped with Pacific ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa), hereafter ponderosa pine) needles; needles (mostly ponderosa pine) with sparse live vegetation; and incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) seedlings [4,6].

Yosemite Valley―The 4th fuel type studied was in Yosemite Valley. The valley floor is nearly level and surrounded by steep canyon walls. The study area is on the south side of the valley near Sentinel Creek. Elevation was not reported but is approximately 1,400 m. Steep, high canyon walls result in moister sites on the south than the north end of the valley [6]. Like the needle fuel type at Wawona, forest floor cover was mostly ponderosa pine needles with sparse live vegetation, although there was more groundlayer herbaceous vegetation than on the Wawona needle type. This fuel type was called valley fuel [4,6].

PREFIRE PLANT COMMUNITY:
Wawona―The overstory was dominated by ponderosa pine. Associated overstory species were incense-cedar and California black oak (Quercus kelloggii). Patches of Sierra mountain misery were interspersed with incense-cedar seedlings in the understory. There were some downed trees that succumbed to insect infestations. Wawona was logged in 1948 [6].

Yosemite Valley―Ponderosa pine and canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepis) dominated the overstory. Pole-sized incense-cedar was successionally replacing canyon live oak. Incense-cedar seedlings dominated the understory. There were occasional coast Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii), white fir (Abies concolor), and ponderosa pine seedlings in the understory. Fuel loads were heavy due to tree mortality from insect and fomes root rot (Fomes annusus) infestations [6].

Stand structure was similar at the 2 sites. Over half the basal area was ponderosa pine, mostly large ponderosa pines (>50 cm in diameter). Scattered large and numerous smaller incense-cedars comprised about one-third of the overstory. The rest of the basal area was mixed Douglas-fir, white fir, and California black oak. The Yosemite Valley site had more downed trees than Wawona. Basal area was not significantly different (all significance levels are 0.05 for this study) between sites. Overall basal area for the 2 sites was [6]:

Prefire mean overstory basal area (m/ha) for Wawona and Yosemite Valley study sites

Species Basal area Percent of total basal area
ponderosa pine 48.90 61.2
incense-cedar 27.17 33.9
California black oak 3.64 4.5
Other 0.30 0.40

Total  

80.01 100.0

Understory basal area and density varied among fuel types, with significantly more vegetative cover on the Sierra mountain misery fuel type compared to other fuel types [6]:

Mean prefire understory basal area (m/ha)

Species Wawona fuel types Yosemite Valley fuel type
Sierra mountain misery Needle Incense-cedar Valley
Basal area Percent of total basal area Basal area Percent of total basal area Basal area Percent of total basal area Basal area Percent of total basal area
ponderosa pine 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 1.96 5.5 0.00 0.00
incense-cedar 2.34 100.0 1.48 100.0 33.34 94.5 0.13 100.0

Total    

2.34 100.0 1.48 100.0 0.13 100.0 35.41 100.0
 

Mean prefire understory density (stems/0.1 ha)

Species and height class (m) Sierra mountain misery fuel type Needle fuel type Incense-cedar fuel type Valley fuel type
Sierra mountain misery
     0-0.3 9,780 300 1,148 0
ponderosa pine
     0-0.3 0 0 2 98
     0.3-1.0 0 3 3 0
     1.0-3.0 0 0 27 0

Total

0 3 32 98

incense-cedar

     0-0.3 8 20 40 20
     0.3-1.0 0 13 90 0
     1.0-3.0 3 10 178 3

Total

11 43 308 23
All species
     0-0.3 9,788 320 1,190 118
     0.3-1.0 0 16 93 0
     1.0-3.0 3 10 205 3

Total

9,791 346 1,488 121

Study sites are classified in the following plant community and historically experienced the fire regime described below:

Fire regime information on the vegetation community studied in this Research Project Summary. Fire regime characteristics are taken from the LANDFIRE Rapid Assessment Vegetation Model [3]. This vegetation model was developed by local experts using available literature and expert opinion as documented in the .pdf file linked from the name of the Potential Natural Vegetation Group listed below.
Vegetation Community (Potential Natural Vegetation Group) Fire severity* Fire regime characteristics
Percent of fires Mean interval
(years)
Minimum interval
(years)
Maximum interval
(years)
California mixed evergreen Replacement 10% 140 65 700
Mixed 58% 25 10 33
Surface or low 32% 45 7 15
Fire Severities: Replacement=Any fire that causes greater than 75% top removal of a vegetation-fuel type, resulting in general replacement of existing vegetation; may or may not cause a lethal effect on the plants. Surface or low=Any fire that causes less than 25% upper layer replacement and/or removal in a vegetation-fuel class but burns 5% or more of the area. Mixed=Any fire burning more than 5% of an area that does not qualify as a replacement, surface, or low-severity fire; includes mosaic and other fires that are intermediate in effects [1,2].

PLANT PHENOLOGY:
Plant phenology was not described. Plants would have been actively growing when burning was conducted.

FIRE SEASON/SEVERITY CLASSIFICATION:
Spring/low to moderate intensity

FIRE DESCRIPTION:
The general study objective was to evaluate the effectiveness of spring prescribed fires for fire hazard reduction under varying fuel and weather conditions in Yosemite's mixed-conifer ecosystem. The study hypothesis was that prescribed spring fires in the 4 understory fuel types in mixed-conifer communities of Yosemite National Park would have differential effects on fire characteristics, fuel reduction, and understory plant composition [6].

On the 2 study sites, ignitions were started in spring 1970 at 4 fuel moisture contents (19%, 16%, 13%, and 10%) and with 2 methods of burning (backfires and head fires). Areas with "excessive" rock outcrops or heavy fuels were not included in analyses [6].

The general fire prescription called for windspeeds ≤10 mph, air temperatures from 20 to 84 F, and relative humidities from 29% to 65%. Backing fires were ignited either at the perimeter edge away from the wind or the upper end of the plots. Head fires were ignited from either the windward or bottom side of the plots [4,6]. Burn areas were 5 to 10 ha [6].

Prefire mean fuel loads were [4]:

Prefire fine and heavy fuels (g/m) by fuel type. Data are means.

Layer Sierra mountain misery fuel type Needle fuel type Incense-cedar fuel type Valley fuel type
surface fuels* 166.4 22.6 18.0 28.2
fresh litter 318.0 422.3 292.0 383.9

weathered litter

565.7 604.5 431.5 532.5
duff 4,127.4 3,565.7 2,830.9 2,971.0
total fine fuel 5,177.5 4,615.1 3,572.4 3,915.5
heavy fuel (>2.5 cm diameter) 508.6 1,726.5 1,261.3 5,062.4

Total 

5,656.1 6,341.6 4,833.7 8,977.9
*Not including litter.

Fire behavior: Energy released by the fire for the 4 understory and forest floor fuel types was: Sierra mountain misery, 575.5 kcal/m; needle, 98.5 kcal/m; incense-cedar, 402.1 kcal/m; and valley, 94.1 kcal/m. Total energy release did not differ between backfires and head fires. Windspeed, fuel type, and fuel moisture content variables significantly affected energy release, and there was a significant 2-way interaction between fuel type and fuel moisture for energy release [6].

Energy release was significantly higher in Sierra mountain misery and incense-cedar fuel types compared to needle and valley fuel types. Fireline intensity was significantly less at fuel moisture contents of 19% and 16% than at 13% and 10% [6]:

Fireline intensity (Kcal/s/m)

Fuel moisture content (%)

Fire type

Backfire Head fire
19 0.0 3.5
16 2.2 14.2
13 5.6 63.1
10 14.1 60.8

Fuel reduction: These low-intensity spring fires consumed most understory fine fuel and fresh needles but burned only slightly into weathered needle and organic soil layers. Since the bulk of the fine fuel load on these sites was in the organic soil layer, total fine fuel reduction from fires was not significant. Fuel type and percent fuel moisture significantly affected fuel reduction, while fire type did not. When fires carried, both backfires and head fires consumed similar amounts of fine fuel at any particular moisture content. As is typical for Yosemite Valley, heavy fuels did not dry until midsummer in the low elevations of Yosemite National Park, so none of the fires reduced heavy fuel loads. Sierra mountain misery and incense-cedar fuel types had greater fine-fuel reductions than needle and valley fuel types. Sierra mountain misery plots burned at higher fuel moisture contents than other fuel types largely because needles draped on Sierra mountain misery plants provided a well-aerated fuel bed. The fuel bed was more compact for the incense-cedar type, so the fires did not carry until fuel moistures were ≤10%. Fuel reduction was significantly greater on needle than valley fuel types, probably because added moisture content of herbaceous vegetation on valley plots caused less fresh needle reduction. Fuel reductions are shown below [6].

Mean fuel reduction (g/m)

Fuel moisture content (%) Sierra mountain misery fuel type Needle fuel type Incense-cedar fuel type Valley fuel type
19 167.0 0.0 79.0 0.0
16 140.5 41.5 60.0 0.0
13 186.5 31.5 115.5 101.5
10 106.5 40.0 169.5 0.0

FIRE EFFECTS ON PLANT COMMUNITY:
As hypothesized, fires with different fuel moisture contents had different effects on understory ponderosa pine and incense-cedar. Total understory basal area of ponderosa pine was not affected by the fires, while total understory basal area for incense-cedar was significantly affected by fuel type, fuel moisture, and the interactive effects of fuel type and fuel moisture. On incense-cedar fuel plots, only plots at the 10% fuel moisture content were sufficiently dry to kill incense-cedars 1 to 3 m in height. Ponderosa pine showed insignificant mortality in all fuel types [6]:

Mean understory total basal area reduction (m/ha) and percent understory mortality of incense-cedar and ponderosa pine at postfire month 1

Species Sierra mountain misery fuel type Needle fuel type Incense-cedar fuel type Valley fuel type
basal area reduction % mortality basal area reduction % mortality basal area reduction % mortality basal area reduction % mortality
incense-cedar 2.34 100.0 0.00 0.0 7.17 21.4 0.00 0.0
ponderosa pine 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.0 14.8 14.8 0.00 0.0

Total   

2.34 100.0 0.00 0.0 21.0 21.0 0.00 0.0

Fuel type, fuel moisture contents, and their interactive effects significantly affected density levels for Sierra mountain misery, incense-cedar, ponderosa pine, and all understory species combined in the 0- to 0.3-m height class. Significance for all species combined was mainly due to the large number of Sierra mountain misery stems on Sierra mountain misery fuel plots. Ponderosa pine in the 0- to 0.3-m (first-year seedling) size class was well represented in the understory only on valley plots. There, the fires killed the ponderosa pine seedlings [6].

Fuel moisture content affected densities of Sierra mountain misery and ponderosa pine in the 0- to 0.3-m size class but not did affect 0- to 0.3-m incense-cedars. For Sierra mountain misery, plots burned at 19% and 16% fuel moisture contents showed significantly greater density losses than plots burned at 13% and 10% fuel moisture contents. For ponderosa pine, plots burned at 10% fuel moisture content showed significantly greater density loss compared to plots burned at 13% fuel moisture content. In the 0.3- to 1.0-m size class, density reductions were insignificant for all 3 species. Most trees in the 1- to 3-m height class were on incense-cedar fuel types. Again, density reductions were due to fuel type, fuel moisture contents, and their interactive effects. Density reductions for the 0- to 0.3-m and 1- to 3-m height classes are shown in the table below [6].

Understory basal area reduction (stems/0.1 ha) and percent density reductions for plants in the 0- to 0.3-m size class

Species Sierra mountain misery fuel type Needle fuel type Incense-cedar fuel type Valley fuel type
density reduction % reduction density reduction % reduction density reduction % reduction density reduction % reduction
Sierra mountain misery 7,900 80.7 283 94.0 42 3.7 0 0.0
incense-cedar 0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0
ponderosa pine 0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0 0.0 57 58.1

All species   

7,900 80.1 80.1 87.6 42 3.5 57 348.3

Understory basal area reduction (stems/0.1 ha) and percent density reductions for plants in the 1- to 3-m size class

incense-cedar 3 100.0 0 0.0 48 26.9 0 0.0
ponderosa pine 0 0.0 0 0.0 3 11.1 0 0.0

All species

3 100.0 0 0.0 51 24.9 0 0.0

FIRE MANAGEMENT IMPLICATIONS:
This study demonstrated that low- and moderate-intensity spring fires can reduce flashy fuels such as Sierra mountain misery and fresh needles, and cause some reduction in the understory of the incense-cedar fuel type [6].

Fuel moisture content was the single most important factor affecting fire characteristics, fuel consumption, and fire effects on vegetation. Fuel type also influenced fire behavior. Fires on the 10% fuel moisture plots caused greatest changes in postfire understory composition. Reduction of Sierra mountain misery is particularly important for fire hazard reduction. Although Sierra mountain misery sprouts after fire, new sprouts are less flammable than old stems because sprouts have higher moisture contents and less dead biomass [6]. Based on these findings and other prescribed fires on similar mixed-conifer Yosemite sites from 1972 through 1976, van Wagtendonk [4,5,6] presented the following prescription for the lower mixed-conifer zone of Yosemite National Park. This prescription may be applicable in lower mixed-conifer zones elsewhere in California.

Fire prescription for burning the lower portion of the mixed-conifer zone of Yosemite National Park using fuel model G*. Prescription is for 900-1,800 m elevations on southern exposures and 900-1,700 m elevations on northern exposures.
Prescription variable Spring Fall
windspeed (mph) 1-10 0-10
air temperature (F) 30-84 30-89
relative humidity (%) 25-64 25-64
1-hr timelag fuelstick moisture (%) 5-8 5-8
10-hr timelag fuelstick moisture (%) by fuel type 
     Sierra mountain misery  6-16 6-16
     needle (ponderosa pine)  6-16 6-16
      meadows  6-16 6-16
     incense-cedar 6-11 6-16
     chaparral (Manzanita
     and Ceanothus spp.)
9-17 9-17
100-hr timelag fuelstick moisture (%) 13-25 13-18
fine fuel moisture (%) 6-12 6-10
ignition component 16-50 21-53
spread component 1-2 1-2
energy release component 13-32 26-39
burning index 8-15 10-16
*Fuel model G is dense conifer stands with heavy accumulations of downed woody debris and deep litter. Adapted from [5]

Van Wagtendonk [5] also provides prescriptions for upper mixed conifer (1,700-2,400 m) and giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) groves.


SPECIES INCLUDED IN THE SUMMARY:
This Research Project Summary contains fire response information on the following species. For further information, follow the highlighted links to the FEIS species reviews.

Appendix
Common name Scientific name
Sierra mountain misery Chamaebatia foliolosa
incense-cedar Calocedrus decurrens
Pacific ponderosa pine Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa

REFERENCES:


1. Hann, Wendel; Havlina, Doug; Shlisky, Ayn; [and others]. 2005. Interagency fire regime condition class guidebook. Version 1.2, [Online]. In: Interagency fire regime condition class website. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service; U.S. Department of the Interior; The Nature Conservancy; Systems for Environmental Management (Producer). Variously paginated [+ appendices]. Available: http://www.frcc.gov/docs/1.2.2.2/Complete_Guidebook_V1.2.pdf [2007, May 23]. [66734]
2. LANDFIRE Rapid Assessment. 2005. Reference condition modeling manual (Version 2.1), [Online]. In: LANDFIRE. Cooperative Agreement 04-CA-11132543-189. Boulder, CO: The Nature Conservancy; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service; U.S. Department of the Interior (Producers). 72 p. Available: http://www.landfire.gov/downloadfile.php?file=RA_Modeling_Manual_v2_1.pdf [2007, May 24]. [66741]
3. LANDFIRE Rapid Assessment. 2007. Rapid assessment reference condition models, [Online]. In: LANDFIRE. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Lab; U.S. Geological Survey; The Nature Conservancy (Producers). Available: http://www.landfire.gov/models_EW.php [2008, April 18] [66533]
4. van Wagtendonk, Jan W. 1974. Refined burning prescriptions for Yosemite National Park. National Park Service Occasional Paper Number 2. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. 21 p. [50524]
5. van Wagtendonk, Jan W. 1977. Fire management in the Yosemite mixed-conifer ecosystem. In: Mooney, Harold A.; Conrad, C. Eugene, technical coordinators. Proceedings of the symposium on the environmental consequences of fire and fuel management in Mediterranean ecosystems; 1977 August 1-5; Palo Alto, CA. Gen. Tech. Rep. WO-3. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: 459-463. [4895]
6. van Wagtendonk, Jan Willem. 1972. Fire and fuel relationships in mixed conifer ecosystems of Yosemite National Park. Berkeley, CA: University of California. 163 p. Dissertation. [40173]

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