The importance of small fire refugia in the central Sierra Nevada, California, USA

Fire refugia – the unburned areas within fire perimeters – are important to the survival of many taxa through fire events and the revegetation of post-fire landscapes. Previous work has shown that species use and benefit from small-scale fire refugia (1–1000 m2), but our understanding of where and how fire refugia form is largely limited to the scale of remotely sensed data (i.e., 900 m2 Landsat pixels). To examine the causes and consequences of small fire refugia, we field-mapped all unburned patches ≥1 m2 within a contiguous 25.6 ha forest plot that burned at generally low-to-moderate severity in the 2013 Yosemite Rim Fire, California, USA. Within the Yosemite Forest Dynamics Plot (YFDP), there were 685 unburned patches ≥1 m2, covering a total unburned area of 12,597 m2 (4.9%). Small refugia occurred in all fire severity classifications. Random forest models showed that the proportion of unburned area of 100 m2 grid cells corresponded to pre-fire density and basal area of trees, distance to the nearest stream, and immediate fire mortality, but the relationships were complex and model accuracy was variable. From a pre-fire population of 34,061 total trees ≥1 cm diameter at breast height (1.37 m; DBH) within the plot (1330 trees ha−1), trees of all five of the most common species and those DBH < 30 cm had higher immediate survival rates if their boles were wholly or partially within an unburned patch (P ≤ 0.001). Trees 1 cm ≤ DBH < 10 cm that survived were located closer to the center of the unburned patch than the edge (mean 1.1 m versus 0.6 m; ANOVA; P ≤ 0.001). Four-year survival rates for trees 1 cm ≤ DBH < 10 cm were 58.8% within small refugia and 2.7% in burned areas (P ≤ 0.001). Species richness and the Shannon Diversity Index were associated with unburned quadrats in NMDS ordinations 3 years post-fire. Burn heterogeneity in mixed-conifer forests likely exists at all scales and small refugia contribute to diversity of forest species and structures. Thus, managers may wish to consider scales from 1-m2 to the landscape when designing fuel reduction prescriptions. The partial predictability of refugia location suggests that further work may lead to predictive models of refugial presence that have considerable potential to preserve ecological function or human habitation in fire-frequent forests.

Blomdahl, Erika M. Kolden, Crystal A. Meddens, Arjan J. H. Lutz, James A.
Forest Ecology and Management