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Fire History of the Appalachian Region: A Review and Synthesis

This review and synthesis explores fire history from Alabama to New England, and provides a context for describing resilient forests of the future.

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The importance of fire in shaping Appalachian vegetation has become increasingly apparent over the last 25 years. This period has seen declines in oak (Quercus) and pine (Pinus) forests and other re-dependent ecosystems, which in the near-exclusion of re are being replaced by re-sensitive mesophytic vegetation. These vegetation changes imply that Appalachian vegetation had developed under a history of burning before the re-exclusion era, a possibility that has motivated investigations of Appalachian re history using proxy evidence. Here we synthesize those investigations to obtain an up-to-date portrayal of Appalachian re history.

We organize the report by data type, beginning with studies of high-resolution data on recent res to provide a context for interpreting the lower-resolution proxy data. Each proxy is addressed in a subsequent chapter, beginning with witness trees and continuing to re-scarred trees, stand age structure, and soil and sediment charcoal. Taken together, these proxies portray frequent burning in the past.

Fires had occurred at short intervals (a few years) for centuries before the re-exclusion era. Indeed, burning has played an important ecological role for millennia. Fires were especially common and spatially extensive on landscapes with large expanses of oak and pine forest, notably in the Ridge and Valley province and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Burning favored oak and pine at the expense of mesophytic competitors, but re exclusion has enabled mesophytic plants to expand from re-sheltered sites onto dry slopes that formerly supported pyrogenic vegetation. These changes underscore the need to restore re- dependent ecosystems.

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