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This paper reviews and synthesizes literature on fire as a disturbance factor in boreal forests. Spatial and temporal variation in the biophysical environment, specifically, vegetative structure, terrain, and weather lead to variations in fire behavior. Changes in slope, aspect, elevation, and soil affect site energy and water budgets and the potential plant community. These terrain features also have a major influence on fire-caused disturbance through their role in determining moisture conditions and flammability of fuels on hourly, seasonal, and successional time-scales. On fine time scales (minutes to hours), changes in weather, specifically wind and relative humidity, significantly affect a fire’s intensity and aboveground effects. Normal seasonal changes in dryness and periodic drought influence fire intensity and severity principally by affecting the depth of burn and belowground effects. On decades-long time scales changes in vegetative structure affect the mass of fuel available for burning and therefore the potential energy that can be released during a fire. The severity of fire varies in time and space depending not only on the biophysical environment, but also on the location on the fire’s perimeter (head vs. flank vs. rear). Spatial and temporal variation in severity within a fire can have long-lasting impacts on the structure and species composition of post-fire communities and the potential for future disturbances. Characteristic temperature histories of ground, surface, and crown fires are used to illustrate variations in fire severity. A soil-heating model is used to illustrate the impact of varying depth of burn on the depth at which various fire effects occur in the soil profile. A conceptual model is presented for the effects of fire severity on fire-plant regeneration interactions. The conceptual model can be used by restoration ecologists to evaluate the differential effects of controlled or prescribed fires and wildfires and to plan and implement fire treatments to conserve biodiversity.