Stanley G. Kitchen
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Historic Fire Regimes as Templates for Fire Restoration in Eastern Great Basin Mountains:
or Eating the Elephant a Bite at a Time
Stanley G. Kitchen, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Provo, UT
Fire and vegetation histories can provide useful templates for restoration of functional fire/forest systems. Multi-century (300-800 yr) fire histories were recently developed from tree rings for 10 sites located on six eastern Great Basin ranges. Vegetation (tree) histories were developed for four sites. These histories reveal fire regimes dominated by low and mixed severity fire with highest fire frequencies in mid-elevation (2,300-2,700 m) ponderosa pine and dry mixed-conifer forests. Within this general pattern, topography dictated conditions of low (fire protected) and high (high severity) fire risk. Most fires were relatively small. Fire seasonality was bimodal, with early and late-season fires dominant. This pattern differs from the mid-season peak of modern lightning-caused fires suggesting the probability of a significant role of human ignitions in historic fire regimes. Tree density increased on forested locations and trees encroached into mountain shrub-grass steppe after fire regime change during the mid to late 1800s. This steppe type is located roughly parallel to ponderosa pine and dry mixed-conifer stands on dry, mid-elevation aspects and provided a partial fuel buffer between pinyon-juniper below and mixed-conifer, subalpine and aspen stands above. Strategies to restore fire should focus first on mid-elevation stands of mixed-conifer forest and degraded (tree-invaded) steppe that have experienced the most change in fire regime and vegetation/fuel structure. Early and late-season prescribed fire should be integrated with mechanical treatments and native plant seedings as necessary to accomplish fuel modification and restoration goals. Frequent small fires that mimic historic processes will aid in fostering public acceptance of fire as a tool. Well-planned implementation of prescribed fire will reduce the risk of catastrophic fire and, over time, promote landscape heterogeneity consistent with multiple resource objectives.