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The role of fire in the competitive dynamics of coast redwood forests

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Fire is a major component of the disturbance regime and a critical determinant of competitive outcomes in many ecosystems. In forests dominated by coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), fire was frequent and ubiquitous prior to European settlement, but fires have been exceedingly small and rare over the last 70–80 years because of aggressive fire prevention and suppression policies. As a result, many aspects of redwood fire ecology remain poorly understood. However, in 2008 a single storm ignited numerous fires throughout the redwood region, providing a rare opportunity to conduct replicated fire effects research. One year post-fire, we investigated competitive dynamics by quantifying bole survival and basal sprouting, for redwood and associated species, at four field sites that spanned much of the latitudinal range of redwood and encompassed (1) second-growth and old-growth stands, (2) burned and unburned areas, and (3) a wide range of fire severities. We employed a mixed effects analytical framework and found that: (1) the probability of bole survival was greater for redwood than for its primary competitor (tanoak; Notholithocarpus densiflorus), (2) this divergence was much more pronounced at higher fire severities, and (3) tanoak exhibited a slight advantage in terms of post-fire basal sprouting, but the dominance of tanoak basal sprouts in burned areas was reduced relative to unburned areas. For many disturbance types in many ecosystems, the empirical data necessary for effective management decisions are lacking, and studies incorporating vegetative tree regeneration are especially scarce. Our work demonstrates the importance of utilizing unique field research opportunities to test current theories, while unequivocally documenting that fires of all severities increased the abundance of redwood relative to tanoak, and that higher severity fires more strongly favored redwood.

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