Fine-scale heterogeneity in overstory composition contributes to heterogeneity of wildfire severity in southern boreal forest

Daren J. Carlson, Peter B. Reich, Lee E. Frelich

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29 Scopus citations


Wildfire can create a mosaic of impacts of varying severity across the landscape. Although widely recognized, this feature and its causes are little understood or studied in ecology. We studied a 1,200-ha wildfire in the southern boreal forest of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in northeastern Minnesota, USA, using 275 ground plots (stand-scale) and 1:7,000 scale aerial photographs for the entire burned area (landscape-scale). Fire severity was markedly heterogeneous. Overall, 50% of the burn extent was classified as high burn severity, but patches burned this severely were on average less than 70 m from patches of low severity. As expected, lowlands had lower average fire severity than uplands, but several lowland areas burned, and some upland areas remained unburned. At the landscape scale, pre-fire vegetation type-itself heterogeneous-and patch size of less flammable cover types influenced fire severity. Crown fire severity in upland areas was lowest in pure aspen-birch and red/white pine stands and highest in jack pine and spruce-fir stands. At the stand-scale, slope position and the density of certain tree species at adjacent plots influenced fire severity. Improved understanding of the severity patterns created by wildfire can help to guide the management of spatial patterns of forested systems. Based on our study, a larger range in disturbance severity at scales of 0.1 to several ha and increasing the average size, and range of sizes, of residual patches would in aggregate better mimic natural disturbance than typical harvests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)203-214
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Forest Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2011

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgments We thank the Superior National Forest, particularly Jim Hinds, for logistical assistance and documents; E. Hanson, J. Bobrowski, and K. Snow for field assistance; P. Bolstad, H. Douglas, G. Olson provided GIS assistance; C. Hale for significant editing and formatting assistance; one anonymous reviewer; and The Wilderness Research Foundation for funding.


  • Fire ecology
  • Fire severity
  • Forest dynamics
  • Landscape ecology
  • Natural disturbance


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