Both fire exclusion and subsequent wildfires have strongly affected carbon storage in fire-prone dry forests, with implications for how carbon storage will change in the future. Using a reconstruction of forest structure in 1899 and pre- and post-fire field data, we quantified changes in carbon stocks in a 2125-ha old-growth mixed conifer forest landscape over a century of fire exclusion and emissions due to a 2013 wildfire. From 1899 to 2002 aboveground carbon storage in live trees increased 2.5-fold from 97 Mg/ha to 263 Mg/ha. Despite burning in an uncharacteristically severe wildfire, the forest still contained 169 Mg/ha of live aboveground tree carbon in 2014. Direct fire emissions were 72 Mg/ha and did not vary with canopy cover loss because emissions were largely driven by consumption of accumulated surface fuels. Areas that burned at low, moderate and high severity in the wildfire contained similar amounts of carbon in 1899, when the forest was still experiencing frequent low severity fire. By 2002 the low severity areas contained 80 and 86 Mg/ha more aboveground live tree carbon than moderate and high severity areas respectively. The wildfire reinforced and amplified these differences in carbon storage that arose during fire exclusion, such that carbon storage following the wildfire was more variable across the landscape. Additionally, the proportion of carbon stored in shade-intolerant, more fire-sensitive species increased. These changes in where and in what tree species carbon is stored, due to the combination of fire exclusion and wildfire, have implications for the potential future stability of these carbon stocks.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Nature and Landscape Conservation
- Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law