Landscape Fire History and Age Structure Patterns in the Sky Islands of Southeastern Arizona

TitleLandscape Fire History and Age Structure Patterns in the Sky Islands of Southeastern Arizona
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2006
AuthorsIniguez, JM
AdvisorSwetnam, T
Academic DepartmentSchool of Natural Resources
UniversityUniversity of Arizona
KeywordsRenewable Natural Resources

At regional scales climate patterns (e.g., interannual wet-dry cycles) result in high spatial fire synchrony among Southwest forests. However, in the “Sky Island” forests of southeastern Arizona spatial and temporal patterns of fire history and tree age structure at landscape levels (i.e., within mountain ranges) are relatively unknown and therefore the focus of this study. In the Santa Catalina Mountains we reconstructed the fire history on a 2,900-hectare study area with two distinct landscapes, Butterfly Peak (BP) and Rose Canyon (RC) using 2-hectare “points” (i.e., collection areas). The RC landscape was dominated by shallow south-facing aspects and BP was dominated by steep north-facing aspects. Within each landscape, point mean fire intervals (PMFIs) were not significantly different between aspect classes. However, pooled PMFIs were significantly shorter in RC compared to BP. These results show that the fire history at any given point (i.e., 2 hectares or less) was primarily controlled by the broad-scale topography of the encompassing landscape, rather than by the fine-scale topography at that point. Using similar methods we also reconstructed the fire history on Rincon Peak, which is a small isolated mountain range with very step topography. The fire history of the 310-hectare forest area was a mixture of frequent low severity surface fires (from AD 1648 to 1763) and infrequent mixed-severity fires (from AD 1763 to 1867). This mixed-fire regime was probably due to a combination of climatic variability, the small area and rugged topography of this mountain range, and complex fuel arrangements. The distinct fire histories from these two study areas provided natural age structure experiments that indicated tree age cohorts (i.e., higher than expected tree establishment pulses) occurred during periods of reduced fire frequencies. In some instances these periods were likely caused by climatic variability (e.g., a wet and/or cool early 1800s) creating synchronous age cohorts across the region. At other times, extended fire intervals were a function of local topography (e.g., 1763-1819 in the northern half of Rincon Peak). Overall, these studies demonstrated that landscape and climatic variations combine to produce complex spatial and temporal variations in fire history and tree age structures.