A century of fire suppression in the Western United States has drastically altered the historically fire-adapated ecology in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Fire suppression is understood to have increased the forest cover, as well as the stem density, canopy cover and water demand of montane forests, reducing resilience of the forests to drought, and increasing the risk of catastrophic fire by drying the landscape and increasing fuel loads. The potential to reverse these trends by re-introducing fire into the Sierra Nevada is highly promising, but the likely effects on vegetation structure and water balance are poorly quantified. The Illilouette Creek Basin in Yosemite National Park represents a unique experiment in the Sierra Nevada, in which managers have moved from fire suppression to allowing a near-natural fire regime to prevail since 1972. Changes in vegetation structure in the Illilouette since the restoration of natural burning provides a unique opportunity to examine how frequent, mixed severity fires can reshape the Sierra Nevada landscape. We characterize these changes from 1969 to the present using a combination of Landsat products and high-resolution aerial imagery. We describe how the landscape structure has changed in terms of vegetation composition and its spatial organization, and explore the drivers of different post-fire vegetation type transitions (e.g. forest to shrubland vs. forest to meadow). By upscaling field data using vegetation maps and Landsat wetness indices, we explore how these vegetation transitions have impacted the water balance of the Illilouette Creek Basin, potentially increasing its resilience in the face of drought, climate change, and catastrophic fire. In a region that is adapted to frequent disturbance from fire, this work helps us understand how allowing such natural disturbances to take place can increase the sustainability of diverse landscapes in the long term.
Boisrame, G.F.S, Thompson, S.E., Stephens, S., Collins, B., Tague, N. (2015): Resilience Through Disturbance: Effects of Wildfire on Vegetation and Water Balance in the Sierra Nevadas . American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. San Francisco, CA.