Fuel accumulation and forest structure change following hazardous fuel reduction treatments throughout California
Altered fuel conditions coupled with changing climate have disrupted fire regimes of forests historically characterised by high-frequency and low-to-moderate-severity fire. Managers use fuel treatments to abate undesirable fire behaviour and effects. Short-term effectiveness of fuel treatments to alter fire behaviour and effects is well documented; however, long-term effectiveness is not well known. We evaluated surface fuel load, vegetation cover and forest structure before and after mechanical and fire-only treatments over 8 years across 11 National Forests in California. Eight years post treatment, total surface fuel load returned to 67 to 79% and 55 to 103% of pretreatment levels following fire-only and mechanical treatments respectively. Herbaceous or shrub cover exceeded pretreatment levels two-thirds of the time 8 years after treatment. Fire-only treatments warranted re-entry at 8 years post treatment owing to the accumulation of live and dead fuels and minimal impact on canopy bulk density. In general, mechanical treatments were more effective at reducing canopy bulk density and initially increasing canopy base height than prescribed fire. However, elevated surface fuel loads, canopy base height reductions in later years and lack of restoration of fire as an ecological process suggest that including prescribed fire would be beneficial.