The Fire Regime of Moist Montane Forests

Moist montane forests, which make up 52% of the total forested acreage in our focal area, are predisposed to burn at longer intervals and with higher severity than our dry montane forests. The historical fire regime is best characterized as one of moderate-frequency and mixed-severity burns.

Based on data from 51 fire history studies in moist montane forests of western Montana and northern Idaho, the average stand has a mean fire return interval of 78 years (Antos 1977; Arno 1976, 1994; Arno and Carlson 1986; Arno and Davis 1980; Arno and Gruell 1983; Arno et al. 1995; Barrett 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996a,1996b, 1997, 1998a, 1998b, 1999a, 1999b; Buck 1973, Freedman and Habeck 1985; Gabriel 1976; Gruell et al. 1982; Habeck 1985, 1992, 1994; Losensky 1989, 1992, 1993a, 1993b, 1993c, 1993d, 1993e, 1993f; Makela 1990; McCune 1983; Pierce 1982, 1995a, 1995b, 1995c, 1995d, 1995e, 1995f; Zack and Morgan 1994). The warmest and driest of these forests, usually dominated by Douglas-fir, tend to burn most frequently (Pfister et al. 1977). Some steep, dry slopes have an average return interval of 25-50 years (Arno 1980). At the other extreme, the most humid forests within this type, usually dominated by western redcedar and western hemlock, seldom support spreading fires (Fischer and Bradley 1987) and have an average return interval of 70-250 years.

The relatively warm, wet conditions that snuff out many ignitions also encourage dense growth and regeneration within moist montane forests (Cooper et al. 1991). In general, the longer these relatively productive forests go without fire, the greater the probability that fire will carry up “ladder fuels” into the tree canopies when they do burn. While stands that burn every 25-50 years may see mostly understory fire, this forest type is predisposed to experience some degree of crown fire on a regular basis. The size of these stand-replacing events depends largely on weather and terrain, with the largest high-severity fires likely to occur in steep terrain and during drought years (Arno 1980). For example, particularly large swaths of this forest type, including otherwise soggy cedar-hemlock stands, were severely burned during the extreme fire years of 1889, 1910, 1919, 1926, 1934, and 1967 (Arno 1980). Under more moderate weather conditions, fires are apt to creep through the understories of moist montane forests, with occasional flare-ups in unusually dry areas, in dense fuels, and on steep slopes (Arno 1976).


LITERATURE CITED:

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Arno, S. F. 1976. The historical role of fire in the Bitterroot National Forest. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Research Paper INT-187.

Arno, S. F. 1980. Forest fire history in the Northern Rockies. Journal of Forestry 78:460-465.

Arno, S. F. 1994. Status Report: Snowbowl old growth proposed study. Unpublished report on file at USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, Missoula, Montana, USA.

Arno, S. F., and C. E. Carlson. 1986. Assessing alternative treatments for overstocked, immature Douglas fir stands on ponderosa pine/fir sites. Unpublished report on file at USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, Missoula, Montana, USA.

Arno, S. F., and D. H. Davis 1980. Fire history of western redcedar/hemlock forests in northern Idaho. Pp. 21-26 in Proceedings of the fire history workshop. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, General Technical Report, RM-81.

Arno, S. F., and G. E. Gruell. 1983. Fire history at the forest-grassland ecotone in southwestern Montana. Journal of Range Management 36:332-336.

Arno, S. F., J. H. Scott, and M. G. Hartwell. 1995. Age-class structure of old growth ponderosa pine/Douglas-fir stands and its relationship to fire history. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Research Paper, RP-481.

Arno, S. F., H. Y. Smith, and M. A. Krebs. 1997. Old-growth ponderosa pine and western larch stand structure: influences of pre-1900 fires and fire exclusion. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Research Paper, RP-495.

Barrett, S. W. 1982. Fire's influence on ecosystems of the Clearwater National Forest: Cook Mountain fire history inventory. Unpublished report on file at USDA Forest Service, Clearwater National Forest, Orofino, Idaho, USA.

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Barrett, S. W. 1984. Fire history of the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness. In: Bureau of Indian Affairs Mission Mountain Wilderness Fire Management Plan (Appendix A); Unpublished report on file at BIA, Forestry Division, Ronan, Montana, USA.

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Barrett, S. W. 1991. Fire history and fire regime types in the Dromedary Analysis Area, Superior Ranger District, Lolo National Forest. Unpublished report on file at USDA Forest Service, Superior Ranger District, Superior, Montana, USA.

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Barrett, S. W. 1997. Historical fire regimes on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Montana. Unpublished report on file at USDA Forest Service, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Wise River Ranger District, Wise River, Montana, USA.

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