Tree mortality from fire and bark beetles following early and late season prescribed fires in a Sierra Nevada mixed-conifer forest

Dylan W. Schwilk, Eric E. Knapp, Scott M. Ferrenberg, Jon E. Keeley, Anthony C. Caprio

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85 Scopus citations


Over the last century, fire exclusion in the forests of the Sierra Nevada has allowed surface fuels to accumulate and has led to increased tree density. Stand composition has also been altered as shade tolerant tree species crowd out shade intolerant species. To restore forest structure and reduce the risk of large, intense fires, managers have increasingly used prescription burning. Most fires prior to EuroAmerican settlement occurred during the late summer and early fall and most prescribed burning has taken place during the latter part of this period. Poor air quality and lack of suitable burn windows during the fall, however, have resulted in a need to conduct more prescription burning earlier in the season. Previous reports have suggested that burning during the time when trees are actively growing may increase mortality rates due to fine root damage and/or bark beetle activity. This study examines the effects of fire on tree mortality and bark beetle attacks under prescription burning during early and late season. Replicated early season burn, late season burn and unburned control plots were established in an old-growth mixed conifer forest in the Sierra Nevada that had not experienced a fire in over 120 years. Although prescribed burns resulted in significant mortality of particularly the smallest tree size classes, no difference between early and late season burns was detected. Direct mortality due to fire was associated with fire intensity. Secondary mortality due to bark beetles was not significantly correlated with fire intensity. The probability of bark beetle attack on pines did not differ between early and late season burns, while the probability of bark beetle attack on firs was greater following early season burns. Overall tree mortality appeared to be primarily the result of fire intensity rather than tree phenology at the time of the burns. Early season burns are generally conducted under higher fuel moisture conditions, leading to less fuel consumption and potentially less injury to trees. This reduction in fire severity may compensate for relatively modest increases in bark beetle attack probabilities on some tree species, ultimately resulting in a forest structure that differs little between early and late season prescribed burning treatments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)36-45
Number of pages10
JournalForest Ecology and Management
Issue number1-3
StatePublished - Aug 15 2006


  • Abies
  • Bark beetle
  • Dendroctonus
  • Pinus
  • Prescribed fire
  • Scolytus


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