Canadian Forest Service Publications

Fire history sampling strategy of fire intervals associated with mixed- to full-severity fires in southern Alberta, Canada. 2016. Rogeau, M.-P.; Parisien, M.-A.; Flannigan, M.D. Forest Science 62(6):613-622.

Year: 2016

Issued by: Northern Forestry Centre

Catalog ID: 37118

Language: English

CFS Availability: PDF (request by e-mail)

Available from the Journal's Web site.
DOI: 10.5849/forsci.15-053

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We propose a series of methods to conduct a field-based fire history in landscapes regulated by mixed- to high-severity fires, where repeated lethal fires create a scarcity of trees bearing more than a single scar and pose a challenge for calculating fire return intervals (FRIs). In the context of applied forest and fire management, we use a case study based on six sampling units across the Montane, Subalpine, and Upper Foothills natural subregions of the southern Canadian Rockies of Alberta. The methods use historical aerial photography and a targeted paired-plot sampling strategy along fire boundaries and edges of unburned island remnants. This process allows for the calculation of point FRIs even when fire scars are absent. The Kaplan-Meier nonparametric likelihood estimator is used for the fire frequency analysis. A total of 814 sampling sites were visited, from which 3,123 tree cross-sections containing 522 fire scars were collected. The period of data analysis ranged from the oldest stands sampled in the unit (1535–1770) to 1948, before effective fire suppression. Spatial variability in the probability median FRIs between natural regions was identified. It ranged from 26 to 35 years in the Montane and was 39 years for the single Upper Foothills unit sampled, whereas the two Subalpine units sampled recorded values of 65 and 85 years. We concluded that the approach was sound for landscape-scale study areas regulated by large fires with significant tree mortality and with an average fire interval greater than 20 years.

Plain Language Summary

After decades of fire exclusion in southern Alberta, Canada, forests in this area are on average older than they have ever been before. To develop sustainable forest management practices, we must understand the extent to which humans have modified natural wildfire regimes. However, in forests in which fires kill most of the trees, there is little evidence of past fires and thus it is difficult to determine the forests’ fire history. This study describes a way to reconstruct forests’ fire history cost-efficiently and then use this information to calculate the forests’ past rates of burning (i.e., mean fire intervals). We found that the mean fire interval has lengthened greatly in valley and lower elevation forests in recent times. In contrast, rugged high-elevation forests are still fairly “natural” with respect to their fire regimes. These results can be used by decision makers as they develop forest management guidelines.