Fire Ecology of Pacific Northwest Forests / Edition 1

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<p>"Agee examines in depth the issues in the ecological context and history of fire, wild and human. He sheds considerable light on this most important topic. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants a thorough understanding of the ecological and management issues related to fire in the forests.<p>-International Journal of Forestr.<p>The structure of most virgin forests in the western United States reflects a past disturbance history that includes forest fire. James K. Agee, an expert in the emerging field of fire ecology, analyzes the ecological role of fire in the creation and maintenance of natural western forests, focusing primarily on forest stand development patterns. His discussion of the natural fire environment and the environmental effects of fire is applicable to a wide range of temperate forests.

A leading expert in the emerging field of fire ecology, James Agee analyzes the ecological role of fire in the creation and maintenance of the natural forests common to most of the western U.S. In addition to examining fire from an ecological perspective, he provides insight into its historical and cultural aspects, and also touches on some of the political issues that influence the use of fire. Although the focus of chapters on the ecology of specific forest zones is on the Pacific Northwest, much of the book addresses issues that are applicable to other regions. Illustrations, tables, index.

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Editorial Reviews

Agee (forest ecology, U. of Washington) analyzes the ecological role of fire in the creation and maintenance of natural western forests, with a focus on forest stand development patterns. His discussion of the natural fire environment and the environmental effects of fire is applicable to a wide range of temperate forests. Throughout, he interprets critical current management issues--park and wilderness management, new forestry, spotted owl preservation, global climate change--from the perspective of fire ecology. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559632300
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/1996
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 493
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

James K. Agee is professor of forest ecology in the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington, Seattle. He recently completed a five-year term as chair of the Division of Ecosystem Science and Conservation, and he continues to teach and conduct research on forest and fire ecology. Before coming to the University of Washington, he was a forest ecologist and research biologist for the National Park Service in Seattle and San Francisco. Agee received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1973. He is the author of more than 100 technical reports and professional papers in forest and fire ecology, and he has extensive experience with fire research and management in the Pacific Coast states. He has been a trustee for the Washington chapter of The Nature Conservancy, was chair to the Washington Natural Heritage Council, and associate editor of Northwest Science.

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Read an Excerpt

Fire Ecology of Pacific Northwest Forests

By James K. Agee


Copyright © 1993 James K. Agee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55963-230-0



DISTURBANCE IS AN INTEGRAL PROCESS in natural ecosystems, and management of forest ecosystems must take into account the chance of natural disturbance by a variety of agents. In some situations, such as park or wilderness management, natural disturbance may be required by law or policy to maintain natural ecosystems. In others, natural disturbance may wreak havoc with specific management goals, such as wood production or maintenance of a specific wildlife habitat. Fire is a ubiquitous disturbance factor in both space and time, and it cannot be ignored in long- term planning. Its effects can be integrated into land management planning through an understanding of how fire affects the site and the landscape.

Today's plant communities reflect species assemblages in transition, each reacting with different lag times to past changes in climate, and each migrating north or south, up or downslope. Many species have not closely coevolved with the other species they are found growing with today, because of differential rates of migration over past millennia. Each species, however, may have coevolved for much longer periods with particular processes associated with it. Fires have been associated with most species of angiosperms and gymnosperms through much or all of their evolutionary development.


Fire is by no means a recent phenomenon. As long as plant biomass has been present on the earth, lightning has ignited fires, and the myriad ecological effects have been repeated time and again. The history of fire extends well back into the Paleozoic Era, hundreds of million years before the present and long before the angiosperms existed on earth. The Carboniferous Period, so named because of the extensive coal deposits formed during that time, have extensive amounts of fusain (Komarek 1973, Beck et al. 1982). Fusain is a fossil charcoal produced by fires that is almost completely inert, allowing it to survive through the geologic eras (Harris 1958). Fusain has little volatile content and glows on combustion, in contrast to coalified plant tissue, which burns with a smoky flame (Harris 1981). Wildfire was probably a regular occurrence on the earth during and since the Mesozoic (Cope and Chaloner 1985), when gymnosperms dominated the earth and angiosperms developed.

Fire may have been associated with the extinction of dinosaurs. A catastrophe following a large meteorite striking the earth is now a widely accepted theory for the significant deposition of iridium at the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary, also associated with significant peaks in carbon content (102—104 above background levels; Wolbach et al. 1988). The carbon is mostly soot, and the ejecta from the hypothesized collision lie on top of the soot, implying that the soot was created rapidly and was deposited before the weeks- to months-long deposition of the remainder of the mineral ejecta. A single massive global fire or a series of forest fires occurring around the globe would have been necessary to explain the amount of carbon found in these deposits (Wolbach et al. 1988). Whether such fires were simply another effect of the meteorite impact or whether they were in fact a co-primary cause of biological extinction is a question that may be debated for decades. The magnitude of such a potential event makes the Yellowstone fires of 1988 seem no more than a minor spark on the landscape.

Ecosystems with substantial presence of fire almost always contain species that are able to take advantage of it to survive as individuals or species. Plant adaptations, which will be discussed further in chapter 5, such as thick bark, enable a species to withstand or resist recurrent low intensity fires while less well-adapted associates perish. Some pine species have serotinous (late-opening) cones, which have changed little since the mid-Miocene (Axelrod 1967). While closed, these cones hold a viable seedbank in the canopy that remains protected until the trees burn. After a fire, the cone scales open and release seed into a freshly prepared ashbed. Other species maintain a similar seedbank in the soil, which lies dormant until heated. Many species have the ability to sprout after being burned, either from the rootstock or from the stem. The adaptations of plant species to fire are more widespread and common than animal adaptations, but they are less spectacular than the adaptation of the Melanophila beetle.

The Melanophila beetles are flat-headed borers, found worldwide, which usually breed in fire-damaged pines. Eggs are deposited below the bark, where in larval form the beetles feed on the cambium of newly killed trees and later emerge as adult beetles. Adults are known to be stimulated by heat and/or attracted to smoke. Linsley (1943, p. 341) noted that at University of California football games, with 20,000 or so cigarettes ablaze at any time (remember, this was the 1940s), a haze of tobacco smoke would hang over Memorial Stadium. Melanophila beetles would "annoy patrons by alighting on the clothing or even biting" during a big game, which was more disturbing to fans than a Stanford touchdown. Linsley found that the beetles had sensory pits on their bodies and could somehow sense heat or smoke. Later these pits were determined to be infrared detectors that allowed beetles to find burned areas where newly damaged trees were likely to be found and where the highest probability existed of successfully rearing a brood. This adaptation can only be interpreted as a direct attraction to the presence of fire to increase species fitness, an adaptation that must have taken millennia to evolve.

The earth has long been a fire environment. The fires of Indonesia in 1982 (Davis 1984) and northeastern China in 1987 (Salisbury 1989), each of which burned millions of hectares, are a testament that earth is still a fire environment. Smaller episodes like the Yellowstone fires of 1988 (570,000 ha) are not the first nor will they be the last to strike the northern Rocky Mountains (Christensen et al. 1989). Our approach to fire management in North America must accommodate fire (Pyne 1989a); we cannot be so bold as to think we can eliminate fire from the landscape. It has been with us so long precisely because it is an inevitable part of our environment.


Our knowledge of fire on the Pacific Northwest landscape improves as we approach the present, although much remains unknown. In particular, evidence since the last glaciation suggests a substantial interaction among vegetation, climate, and fire that continues to the present. Climate directly affects vegetation and influences the probability that the vegetation will burn. During periods of climatic change, when conditions at many sites will favor establishment of new species combinations, burning will increase the rate of expansion of shade-intolerant vegetation and decrease the spread of shade-tolerant, late successional species (Brubaker 1986).

Changes in species composition on a site may be inferred from pollen analysis of cores, usually drawn from peatland areas. Ages of the sequences within a core are determined from radiocarbon dating, and an index to fire activity can be determined from charcoal in the same layers. Pollen analyses can be used to reconstruct regional vegetation patterns during the Holocene (Fig. 1.1). In the western Cascades, the relationship between vegetation and fire activity was very dynamic (Tsukada et al. 1981, Cwynar 1987). Retreat of the Fraser glaciation resulted in a forest dominated by spruce and lodgepole pine (Picea and Pinus contorta) in the Puget Trough between 15,000 and 12,000 ybp. Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) entered at that time, suggesting a warming that was associated with increasing summer drought. Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) became dominants, with red alder (Alnus rubra) dominant in riparian settings (Barnosky et al. 1989). (Appendix B lists the common and scientific names of plants mentioned in the text.)

The period between 10,500 and 7,000 ybp was warmer and drier than today. Samples from that time period contain the greatest charcoal peaks, implying that fire was more prevalent during that dry, warm period. Over the past 5,000 years, charcoal peaks have declined from their maxima, and a more stable lowland vegetation, increasingly dominated by western hemlock and western redcedar (Thuja plicata), has persisted to the present. Although fire may have interacted with species such as Douglas-fir for hundreds of generations, it appears to have interacted with the species mix common to today's mesic old-growth, Douglas-fir forests for perhaps 10—20 generations (5,000 years) of Douglas-fir (Brubaker 1991).


Fire evidence in the Pacific Northwest for the current millennium becomes more obvious, since many of the tree species can live for 500—1,000 years (Franklin and Waring 1979). These trees may provide, through forest age structure or fire scars, a direct record of fire activity (see chapter 4). Almost every forest type has experienced a fire in the current millennium, and some may have burned more than a hundred times. Although the evidence of fire is visible on today's landscape, presence alone is an insufficient criterion by which to understand the effects of fire in forested ecosystems. Not only is there variability in fire frequency between forest types, but this frequency has varied over time (Fig. 1.1). It is also necessary to understand other characteristics of fire before fire effects can be holistically interpreted.


Traditional theories of natural disturbance have embraced two concepts that are now discarded: it must be a major catastrophic event, and it originates in the physical environment and therefore is an exogenous agent of vegetation change (White 1979). We now embrace a much broader concept of disturbance, recognizing a gradient from minor to major and the endogenous nature of many disturbances (due either to biotic agents or ecosystem states that encourage an agent). As we accept this broader concept, we thereby create a fuzzier image of disturbance.

Disturbance is difficult to define in ecological terms. The simple dictionary definition of the word is to "interrupt" or to "break up a quiet or settled order." We are well aware that forest ecosystems are not quiet or settled orders, whether recently burned by crown fires or the oldest of old-growth stands. How can we define disturbance in the context of a dynamic ecosystem? When do the "normal" rhythms of the system oscillate to the point where they become "abnormal" or a disturbance? There is no clear answer, as shown by the definition of White and Pickett (1985, p. 7): "A disturbance is any relatively discrete event in time that disrupts ecosystem, community, or population structure and changes resources, substrate availability, or the physical environment." They note that this definition is purposely generalized and place Harper's (1977) "disasters" (a frequent disturbance likely to be repeated in the life cycles of successive generations) and "catastrophes" (a rare disturbance unlikely to be repeated as a selective force) as subsets of "disturbance." Disturbance in forest ecosystems, however, need not be either a disaster or a catastrophe in the normal sense of these words.

Disturbance effects can be ordered to some extent by several characteristics (Table 1.1). These characteristics may be used to describe a single event or a series of events. Disturbance type includes but is not limited to fire, wind, ice and freeze damage, water, landslides, lava flows, insect and disease outbreaks, and effects caused by humans (White and Pickett 1985).

The characteristics in Table 1.1 are not wholly sufficient to describe disturbance effects. Effects of wind, for example, will depend on local topography and forest structure. Blowdown is more important on poorly drained soils (Gratkowski 1956), in wide valleys, and where the area is oriented along the direction of the prevailing winds (Moore and Macdonald 1974). Species' tolerances to wind may be site-specific. Western hemlock is generally prone to windthrow, western redcedar and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) may at times be windfirm, and Douglas-fir has been described as both wind-tolerant and wind-sensitive (Boe 1965, Moore and Macdonald 1974). Dominants in a stand are often more windfirm than intermediate crown-class trees (Boe 1965, Gordon 1973). The characteristics of the disturbance are a starting point to understand ecological effects.

Sometimes simple descriptors may disguise the processes creating the major ecological effects. At Mount St. Helens, a layer of tephra now called the Wn erupted in 1480, depositing a meter or more of tephra near the mountain (Yamaguchi 1986). Yet the falling clasts of the Wn tephra were apparently warm rather than hot, since twigs and leaves at the base of this layer are not carbonized, and many Douglas-fir survived the event with a meter or more of tephra around their bases. In contrast, the 1980 eruption of the volcano left much less tephra in many locations but blew down many trees with an earthquake-triggered explosion of hot and rapidly moving rock debris (Lipman and Mullineaux 1981). The thickness of the tephra, as a single measure of the disturbance, may not be well correlated with its ecological effects.

In the alluvial flats of the redwood region of California, coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is adapted to periodic disturbance by silt deposition from periodic flooding events around the tree bases. While the other conifers are usually killed after such deposition, coast redwood can produce a new root system to replace its buried root system and take advantage of the resources in the new substrate (Stone and Vasey 1968). However, such trees are not adapted to coarse-textured deposits associated with rapid logging of unstable watersheds (Agee 1980). The "drought fickle" deposits are not capable of supporting a new root system, when water tables rise and flood the buried roots. Thus, a change in the quality of the flooding disturbance, rather than a simple measurement of its depth, adversely affected the ability of individuals of a species to survive an event they had survived for previous centuries.

Disturbance is not an easy process to characterize, as these examples attest. Fire effects have been investigated less thoroughly than aspects of fire behavior related to fire control. We now have good capability for prediction of fire behavior, linking fuels, weather, and topography information into behavioral characteristics of a single fire. The next step, predicting the effect of a fire, or of a series of fires varying in frequency, intensity, seasonality, and extent, is just beginning.


Fire is a classic disturbance agent within the criteria of White and Pickett (1985). It is a relatively discrete event in time, although it may vary from seconds in a grass fire to weeks or months in a peat fire. Fire changes ecosystem, community, and population structure, either by selectively favoring certain species or creating conditions for new species to invade. It usually favors early successional species but sometimes can "accelerate" succession to favor late successional species. Fire also changes resource availability. It usually increases mineral elements, such as calcium or magnesium, and temporarily reduces total site nitrogen while at the same time increasing available nitrogen. The physical environment is also altered. The removal of the organic layer covering the soil can deepen permafrost thaw levels, and a blackened soil surface and loss of tree canopy after intense fires can increase maximum and decrease minimum surface temperatures. Such effects may be specific to a fire or an ecosystem, however, so that gross generalizations about fire effects are not possible. In a particular forest type, the ecological effects of fire can be better understood by knowledge of the species present and their relative competitive abilities, as well as of their reaction to the complex process called fire.


Excerpted from Fire Ecology of Pacific Northwest Forests by James K. Agee. Copyright © 1993 James K. Agee. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Title Page,
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