Fire-caused mortality within tree neighborhoods increases growth of Pinus lambertiana more than growth of Abies concolor
Global increases in large-tree mortality and multiple disturbances such as fire, drought, and pestilence increase the importance of understanding how large-tree growth responds to changes in competitive neighborhoods. We used 34,175 spatially mapped trees within 25.6 ha that burned at low to moderate severity in 2013 to investigate how changes to tree neighborhoods affected growth of 3,652 surviving trees of two species, Abies concolor (white fir) and Pinus lambertiana (sugar pine). Using diameter measurements taken in 2014 and 2019, we estimated post-fire radial growth of each surviving tree. We modeled annual basal area increment as a function of diameter and extracted residuals to yield relative growth rate (RGR). We used a multi-model approach and AIC to compare the species-specific effects on RGR of all post-fire tree mortality within a neighborhood radius versus mortality broken down by cause. To represent density reduction around each surviving tree, we computed crowding metrics for neighborhood radii up to 20 m for all tree mortality combined and for each mortality cause. The best-fit model included terms for density reduction within 10 m of the surviving tree due to 1) fire or mechanical damage and 2) bark beetle mortality, as well as their interactions with species and diameter. Density reduction due to fire or mechanical damage had a positive effect on RGR that was nearly twice as strong for P. lambertiana as A. concolor. Tree diameter interacted with density reduction for just P. lambertiana. Small-diameter (10-cm) P. lambertiana had a fourfold larger increase in basal area increment than large-diameter (60-cm) P. lambertiana as density reduction due to fire or mechanical damage ranged from 0 to 100 %. The strong growth response of medium-diameter P. lambertiana to density reductions could eventually increase the abundance of large-diameter (≥60 cm) P. lambertiana. In conjunction with mortality rates, which were lower for large-diameter P. lambertiana (0.97 %) than A. concolor (3.31 %), this could increase the relative abundance of large-diameter P. lambertiana from 51.2 % in 2020 to 62.6 % by 2050. Changes to competitive neighborhoods can have species-specific effects on large-tree growth, an important consideration for long-term management of fire-prone forests.