Forest managers use prescribed fire to reduce wildfire risk and to provide resource benefits, yet little information is available on whether prescribed fires can function as ecological surrogates for wildfire in fire-prone landscapes. Information on impacts and benefits of this management tool on stream and riparian ecosystems is particularly lacking. We used a beyond-BACI (Before, After, Control, Impact) design to investigate the effects of a prescribed fire on a stream ecosystem and compared these findings to similar data collected after wildfire. For 3 years after prescribed fire treatment, we found no detectable changes in periphyton, macroinvertebrates, amphibians, fish, and riparian and stream habitats compared to data collected over the same time period in four unburned reference streams. Based on changes in fuels, plant and litter cover, and tree scorching, this prescribed fire was typical of those being implemented in ponderosa pine forests throughout the western U.S. However, we found that the extent and severity of riparian vegetation burned was substantially lower after prescribed fire compared to nearby wildfires. The early-season prescribed fire did not mimic the riparian or in-stream ecological effects observed following a nearby wildfire, even in catchments with burn extents similar to the prescribed fire. Little information exists on the effects of long-term fire exclusion from riparian forests, but a "prescribed fire regime" of repeatedly burning upland forests while excluding fire in adjacent riparian forests may eliminate an important natural disturbance from riparian and stream habitats.
Additional publication details
Prescribed fires as ecological surrogates for wildfires: A stream and riparian perspective