Implications of sudden oak death for wildland fire management

Margaret R Metz, J Morgan Varner, Allison B Simler, Kerri M Frangioso, David M Rizzo


Human activities and climate change have altered historical disturbance regimes, introduced disturbances, and encouraged novel interactions between multiple disturbances. Ecosystems and the species that comprise them may be poorly equipped to withstand or recover from these altered disturbance regimes. In the fire-prone coastal forests of California and Oregon, sudden oak death (SOD), caused by the pathogen Phytophthora ramorum, is an emerging, non-native plant disease that causes widespread tree mortality and associated implications for fire regimes. Disease-related tree mortality alters fuel loads, with patterns of fuel accumulation varying depending on stand composition, disease severity, and time since pathogen invasion. Simulations and observational studies suggest these altered fuel profiles can impact subsequent fire behavior, and the extent of this interaction may depend on the severity and timing of disease impacts. Initial tree death can elevate the risk of crown ignition, while latter stages can increase surface fuel loading and have been linked to increased fire severity in wildfires. Further, disease history can also influence fire severity with cascading effects leading to unexpected increases in mortality of non-susceptible tree species and changes in nutrient cycling. The longer-term impacts of SOD-fire interactions on system resilience and recovery remain to be seen, but increased fire severity, changed stand structure, and altered biogeochemical cycling may have important consequences for post-fire regeneration and future ecosystem function. Fuels management strategies that diminish crown fire hazards at early stages and mitigate surface fuel hazards at later stages offer some promise, but have yet to be tested in large landscapes. Given SOD-wildfire interactions, further integration of disease- and fire-related management plans will be essential to minimizing impacts of these compounded disturbances.

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