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Vegetation change during 40years of repeated managed wildfires in the Sierra Nevada, California


Fire suppression has been reported to homogenize landscapes in regions that historically experienced frequent wildfire. The Illilouette Creek Basin in Yosemite National Park experienced nearly 100years of fire suppression, but after a change in management strategy it is now one of the few areas in the United States that has experienced a frequent fire regime for the past half-century. This study quantifies changing landscape properties in the Basin from its fire-suppressed state to the present. These landscape properties range from the relative dominance of different vegetation types to the spatial distribution of vegetation patches. This is the first detailed study of watershed-scale changes in overstory vegetation within a landscape transitioning from a fire suppressed condition to frequent, mixed severity wildfires.We mapped major vegetation types over time within Illilouette Creek Basin using high resolution aerial images from four different decades, starting with the final years of a fire-suppressed period and capturing multiple snapshots during forty years of repeated fires. We quantify landscape heterogeneity and vegetation patch shape properties using landscape metrics. From 1969 to 2012, conifer cover decreased by 24% while shrub area increased by 35%, sparse meadow area increased by 199% and dense meadows by 155%. The Shannon’s Evenness Index based on these four vegetation types increased from 0.4 to 0.7, indicating increased landscape heterogeneity. This study demonstrates that wildfires can return diversity to a fire-suppressed landscape, even after protracted fire suppression. Management of forests to restore fire regimes has the potential to maintain healthy, resilient landscapes in frequent fire-adapted ecosystems.

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