Regional and local controls on historical fire regimes of dry forests and woodlands in the Rogue River Basin, Oregon, USA

Kerry L. Metlen, Carl N. Skinner, Derek R. Olson, Clint Nichols, Darren Borgias, Regional and local controls on historical fire regimes of dry forests and woodlands in the Rogue River Basin, Oregon, USA, Forest Ecology and Management, Volume 430, 2018, Pages 43-58, ISSN 0378-1127, (
Year Published
Forest Ecology and Management

Fire regimes structure plant communities worldwide with regional and local factors, including anthropogenic fire management, influencing fire frequency and severity. Forests of the Rogue River Basin in Oregon, USA, are both productive and fire-prone due to ample winter precipitation and summer drought; yet management in this region is strongly influenced by forest practices that depend on fire exclusion. Regionally, climate change is increasing fire frequency, elevating the importance of understanding historically frequent-fire regimes. We use cross-dated fire-scars to characterize historical fire return intervals, seasonality, and relationships with climate beginning in 1650 CE for 13 sites representative of southwestern Oregon dry forests. Using systematic literature review, we link our local fire histories to a regional dataset and evaluate our data relative to more intensively studied conifer/hardwood forest types in California. Fire-scars show that fires in the Rogue Basin were frequent and regular until disrupted in the 1850s through 1910s, corresponding with forced displacement of Native Americans and Euro-American settlement. Median historical fire return intervals were 8 years at the stand-scale (25 ha), with site medians ranging from five to 14 years and no significant differences between sampled vegetation types. Burn seasonality was broadly distributed with 47% of recorded fires in the latewood (midsummer), 30% at the ring boundary (late summer and fall), and 23% in the earlywood (spring and early summer). The number of sites recording fire each year was associated with Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) and El Niño Southern Oscillation Index (ENSO). Fires were detected in the study area every other year, and synchrony among sites was associated with stronger annual drought. The ENSO synchronization of fire suggests an herbaceous fuel signal, with warm winters/wet summers two years prior to widespread fire-years, a pattern observed globally in fuel-limited systems. Stand-scale fire histories in the Klamath, southern Cascades, and northern Sierra Nevada ecoregions resemble Rogue River Basin stand-scale fire histories. Across dry mixed conifer, yellow pine, and mixed evergreen forests, fire return intervals converged on 8 years. Moist mixed conifer and red fir forests exhibited 13-year fire return intervals. Across ecoregions, fire periodicity was weakly correlated with climatic water deficit, but well-modeled by elevation, precipitation, and temperature. These data highlight the need for decadal fire and burning outside of the contemporary fire season for forest restoration and climate adaptation in the dry forests of the Rogue Basin.