Fire is recognized as a keystone process in dry mixed-conifer forests that have been altered by decades of fire suppression. Restoration of fire disturbance to these forests is a guiding principle of resource management in the U.S. National Park Service. Policy implementation is often hindered by a poor understanding of forest conditions before fire exclusion, the characteristics of forest changes since excluding fire, and the influence of topographic or self-organizing controls on forest structure. In this study the spatial and temporal characteristics of fire regimes and forest structure are reconstructed in a 2125-ha mixed-conifer forest. Forests were multi-aged, burned frequently at low severity and firereturn interval, and forest structure did not vary with slope aspect, elevation, or slope position. Fire exclusion has caused an increase in forest density and basal area and a compositional shift to shade-tolerant and fire-intolerant species. The median point fire-return interval and extent of a fire was 10 yr and 115 ha, respectively. The pre-Euro-American settlement fire rotation of 13 yr increased to 378 yr after 1905. The position of fire scars within tree rings indicates that 79% of fires burned in the midsummer to fall period. The spatial pattern of burns exhibited self-organizing behavior. Area burned was 10-fold greater when an area had not been burned by the previous fire. Fires were frequent and widespread, but patches of similar aged trees were <0.2 ha, suggesting small fire-caused canopy openings. Managers need to apply multiple burns at short intervals for a sustained period to reduce surface fuels and create small canopy openings characteristic of the reference forest. By coupling explicit reference conditions with consideration of current conditions and projected climate change, management activities can balance restoration and risk management.
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