Research Article: Historical, Observed, and Modeled Wildfire Severity in Montane Forests of the Colorado Front Range

Date Published: September 24, 2014

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Rosemary L. Sherriff, Rutherford V. Platt, Thomas T. Veblen, Tania L. Schoennagel, Meredith H. Gartner, Ben Bond-Lamberty.


Large recent fires in the western U.S. have contributed to a perception that fire exclusion has caused an unprecedented occurrence of uncharacteristically severe fires, particularly in lower elevation dry pine forests. In the absence of long-term fire severity records, it is unknown how short-term trends compare to fire severity prior to 20th century fire exclusion. This study compares historical (i.e. pre-1920) fire severity with observed modern fire severity and modeled potential fire behavior across 564,413 ha of montane forests of the Colorado Front Range. We used forest structure and tree-ring fire history to characterize fire severity at 232 sites and then modeled historical fire-severity across the entire study area using biophysical variables. Eighteen (7.8%) sites were characterized by low-severity fires and 214 (92.2%) by mixed-severity fires (i.e. including moderate- or high-severity fires). Difference in area of historical versus observed low-severity fire within nine recent (post-1999) large fire perimeters was greatest in lower montane forests. Only 16% of the study area recorded a shift from historical low severity to a higher potential for crown fire today. An historical fire regime of more frequent and low-severity fires at low elevations (<2260 m) supports a convergence of management goals of ecological restoration and fire hazard mitigation in those habitats. In contrast, at higher elevations mixed-severity fires were predominant historically and continue to be so today. Thinning treatments at higher elevations of the montane zone will not return the fire regime to an historic low-severity regime, and are of questionable effectiveness in preventing severe wildfires. Based on present-day fuels, predicted fire behavior under extreme fire weather continues to indicate a mixed-severity fire regime throughout most of the montane forest zone. Recent large wildfires in the Front Range are not fundamentally different from similar events that occurred historically under extreme weather conditions.

Partial Text

The social, environmental and fiscal costs of wildfire have escalated dramatically over the last few decades [1]–[2]. The costs associated with recent wildfires are particularly high in the arid mountain West, where residential structures abut or intermingle with wildland vegetation (Wildland-Urban Interface – WUI) and the exurban population has grown rapidly in recent decades [3]. Large fire events in the 1990s and early 2000s in the western U.S., particularly in lower elevation, relatively dry-pine forests, have contributed to widespread concern that fire exclusion has caused an unprecedented threat of uncharacteristically severe fires in these ecosystems [4]–[5]. Broad-scale monitoring of fire severity from satellite imagery since ca. 1984 shows a significant trend towards increased severity only in parts of the Southwest [6], yet findings are varied in other studies depending on the spatial scale, selected data types, and the location of study (e.g. Pacific West) [7]–[12]. In the absence of longer broad-scale records of fire severity, it is unknown how such short-term trends compare to fire severity prior to fire exclusion. In the context of debate about the potential effects of fire exclusion on modern fire regimes and their departures from historical fire regimes (i.e. prior to fire exclusion) [4], [13]–[15], there is a critical need for research on whether the severity and other characteristics of modern fires depart from historical fire regimes for specific ecosystem types at broad landscape scales. The current study compares reconstructed historical fire severity, observed fire severity in recent fires and modeled fire severity from current fuel structures, and discusses the consequences of fire regime changes for management options under expected future climate in the Colorado Front Range.

Across all 232 field sites, cover type was dominated by a single species (≥80% of the canopy trees >4 cm dbh) of ponderosa pine (42.2%–98 sites) and lodgepole pine (8.6%–20 sites), and co-dominated (<80% of the canopy trees a single species) by mixed-conifer types (49.2%–114 sites). Considering pure ponderosa pine together with mixed-conifer sites, 61.2% (142) of the 232 sites were dominated by ponderosa pine and the remaining sites were dominated by Douglas-fir (20.6% and 48 sites), lodgepole pine (15.5% and 36 sites), and aspen (2.6% and 6 sites). The overall accuracy of the LANDFIRE EVT classification was relatively low with 39.2% of the 232 sites misclassified: 31 pure ponderosa pine, 5 lodgepole pine and 55 co-dominated mixed-conifer sites. Thus, the proportional values of EVT cover types across the study area, and our results defined by EVT cover types (the best available cover type at the landscape scale), should be interpreted cautiously (i.e. Figure 1 pie chart). Nevertheless, field observations support the overall LANDFIRE cover type trends illustrating ponderosa pine throughout the entire study area and an increase of lodgepole pine and mixed-conifer stands in the higher elevation portions of the study area. A key finding of our study of fire regime changes in the montane forest zone of the Colorado Front Range is that only 16% of the total study area recorded a shift from historical low-severity to a higher potential for crown fire today. This area of increased fire severity occurs in over half (57.5%) of the area mapped with the historical low-severity fire regime and is concentrated in the lower montane zone. A substantial portion (42.5%) of the area mapped as the historical low-severity fire regime (11.8% of the study area) shows little change in the fire regime (Figure 8), and is expected to support only surface fire even under extreme (99th percentile) weather conditions based on our modeling of present day fuels. Both areas occur primarily in the lower montane zone below 2263 m, but the areas with little change in the low-severity fire regime are on average slightly lower in elevation and slope steepness and closer to grasslands and ravine drainages than areas with higher potential for crown fire today. Observations from recent large wildfires and modeling of potential fire behavior under extreme weather conditions are consistent with the historical evidence of a varied fire regime of primarily low-severity fires at the lowest elevations to a mixed-severity fire regime at higher elevations in montane forests. Three regional fires predominantly in the lower montane forests showed the greatest differences between the observed (MTBS of recent large fires) and expected (historical fire severity) areas burned by low-severity fire. However, the differences between the observed and expected proportions of low-severity fire for the six other fires were non-significant, or showed higher than expected low-severity fire.   Source: