Drivers and ecological impacts of a wildfire outbreak in the southern Appalachian Mountains after decades of fire exclusion
During one of the warmest and driest droughts of the last century, the southern Appalachian Mountains experienced a regional outbreak of over a dozen large wildfires in late fall of 2016. We provide a synthesis of long-term forest changes leading up to the 2016 wildfires, examine the climatic setting and patterns of burn severity in relationship to topography, and discuss the ecological and management implications of these and future fires. During the pre- and post-European settlement periods, frequent low- and mixed-severity wildfires interacted with complex topographic gradients and maintained heterogenous landscapes dominated by several species of oak(Quercus spp.), pine (Pinus spp.), and the American chestnut (Castanea dentata). Land-use changes associated with European settlement, loss of the American chestnut, and 20th century fire exclusion resulted in large scale shifts towards mesic, fire-intolerant species (i.e. mesophication). Wildfire activity began increasing in the early 1980s,but most fires in the region are small (<1,000 ha). In Fall of 2016, deciduous tree leaf fall occurred concurrently with a period of anomalously dry and warm weather, creating ideal conditions for fire ignition and spread. Thousands of ignitions across the region strained suppression resources and eight fires grew to greater than5,000 ha. The 2016 fires were larger and burned more area than in the previous three decades combined. In one unique landscape setting, the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, a synoptic wind event drove extreme fire behavior and burned large, high-severity patches resulting in devastating effects in the wildland urban interface. However, immediate post-fire burn severity mosaics for other fires were composed primarily of low- (73 %) and moderate-severity (21 %) fire effects. High-severity fire comprised only 6 % of the area burned, and occurred mostly on steep upper slopes and ridges on south-facing aspects, reflecting the importance of bottom-up topographic drivers in this region. Although the fires will likely enhance biodiversity by restoring fire-dependent species and creating early seral habitat, invasions of non-native plant species, delayed mortality of mature pines and oaks, and rapid re-sprouting of pyrophyllic shrubs pose significant management challenges. Although similar large fire outbreaks may become more common under future climatic conditions, they are unlikely to reverse the effects of mesophication and significantly alter forest dynamics at broad spatial scales. The 2016 fires exposed the vulnerability of the region to wildfire during acute fall drought and demonstrate the potential ecological effects of future wildfires in mixed pine-hardwood landscapes of the southern Appalachians.