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Analysis of fire frequency on the Talladega National Forest, USA, 1998-2018

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Abstract

Fire is an essential ecological process and management tool for many forested landscapes, particularly the pine (Pinus spp.) forests of the southern USA. Within the Talladega National Forest in Alabama, where restoration and maintenance of pine ecosystems is a priority, fire frequency (both wild and prescribed) was assessed using a geographical process applied to a fire history database. Two methods for assessing fire frequency were employed: (1) a simple method that utilised the entire range of years acknowledged in the database and (2) a conservative method that was applied only the date of the first and last fires recorded at each location. Analyses were further separated by (a) method of mean fire return interval calculation (weighted by area or Weibull) and (b) fire season interval with analyses conducted on growing season and dormant season fires. Analyses of fire frequency for national forest planning purposes may help determine whether a prescribed fire program mimics ecological and historical fire frequencies and meets intended objectives. The estimated fire return interval was between ~5 and 6.5 years using common, straightforward (simple) methods. About one-third of the forest receives no fire management and about half of the balance has sufficiently managed fuels.

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Four combinations of season and frequency of burning were applied in Coastal Plain loblolly pine stands over a 43-year period. Overstory species composition and growth were unaffected by treatment. Above-ground portions of small hardwoods (less than 12.5 cm d.b.h.) were killed and replaced by numerous sprouts under periodic summer, periodic winter, and annual winter burning regimes. With annual summer burning, small hardwoods and shrubs were killed and replaced by vegetation typical of grassland communities. Grasses and forbs also dominated the understory of annual winter burns but numerous hardwood sprouts survived. Study results emphasize that frequent burning over a long period is needed to create and maintain the pine-grassland community observed by the first European settlers of the southeast.
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