Predictive accuracy of post-fire conifer death declines over time in models based on crown and bole injury

Timothy M. Shearman, J. Morgan Varner, Sharon M. Hood, Phillip J. van Mantgem, C. Alina Cansler, Micah Wright

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


A key uncertainty of empirical models of post-fire tree mortality is understanding the drivers of elevated post-fire mortality several years following fire, known as delayed mortality. Delayed mortality can represent a substantial fraction of mortality, particularly for large trees that are a conservation focus in western US coniferous forests. Current post-fire tree mortality models have undergone limited evaluation of how injury level and time since fire interact to influence model accuracy and predictor variable importance. Less severe injuries potentially serve as an indicator for vulnerability to additional stressors such as bark beetle attack or moisture stress. We used a collection of 164,293 individual tree records to examine post-fire tree mortality in eight western USA conifers: Abies concolor, Abies grandis, Calocedrus decurrens, Larix occidentalis, Pinus contorta, Pinus lambertiana, Pinus ponderosa, and Pseudotsuga menziesii. We evaluated the importance of fire injury predictors on discriminating between surviving trees versus immediate and delayed post-fire mortality. We fit balanced random forest models for each species using cumulative tree mortality from 1 to 5-years post-fire. We compared these results to multi-class random forest models using first-year mortality, 2–5-year mortality, and survival 5-years post-fire as a response variable. Crown volume scorched, diameter at breast height, and relative bark char height, were used as predictor variables. The cumulative mortality models all predicted trees that died within 1-year of fire with high accuracy but failed to predict 2–5-year mortality. The multi-class models were an improvement but had lower accuracy for predicting 2–5-year mortality. Multi-class model accuracies ranged from 85% to 95% across all species for predicting 1-year post-fire mortality, 42%–71% for predicting 2–5-year mortality, and 64%–85% for predicting trees that lived past 5-years. Our study highlights the differences in tree species tolerance to fire injury and suggests that including second-order predictors such as beetle attack or climatic water stress before and after fire will be critical to improve accuracy and better understand the mechanisms and patterns of fire-caused tree death. Random forest models have potential for management applications such as post-fire harvesting and simulating future stand dynamics.
Original languageAmerican English
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 2023


  • Abies
  • Calocedrus
  • FTM database
  • Larix
  • Pinus
  • Pseudotsuga
  • crown scorch
  • delayed mortality
  • fire-caused injury
  • post-fire tree mortality
  • random forest
  • wildland fire


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