Prescribed fire alters structure and composition of a mid-Atlantic oak forest up to eight years after burning

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Background: Prescribed fire in Eastern deciduous forests has been understudied relative to other regions in the United States. In Pennsylvania, USA, prescribed fire use has increased more than five-fold since 2009, yet forest response has not been extensively studied. Due to variations in forest composition and the feedback between vegetation and fire, Pennsylvania deciduous forests may burn and respond differently than forests across the eastern US. We measured changes in forest structure and composition up to eight years after prescribed fire in a hardwood forest of the Ridge and Valley region of the Appalachian Mountains in central Pennsylvania. Results: Within five years post fire, tree seedling density increased more than 72% while sapling density decreased by 90%, midstory density decreased by 46%, and overstory response varied. Following one burn in the mixed-oak unit, overstory tree density decreased by 12%. In the aspen–oak unit, where pre-fire harvesting and two burns occurred, overstory tree density increased by 25%. Not all tree species responded similarly and post-fire shifts in species relative abundance occurred in sapling and seedling size classes. Abundance of red maple and cherry species decreased, whereas abundance of sassafras, quaking aspen, black oak, and hickory species increased. Conclusions: Forest composition plays a key role in the vegetation–fire relationship and localized studies are necessary to measure forest response to prescribed fire. Compositional shifts in tree species were most pronounced in the aspen–oak unit where pre-fire overstory thinning and two prescribed fires were applied and significant structural changes occurred in all stands after just one burn. Increases in fire-tolerant tree species combined with reductions in fire-intolerant species highlight the role of prescribed fire in meeting management objectives such as altering forest structure and composition to improve game habitat in mid-Atlantic hardwood forests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number10
JournalFire Ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Forestry
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)


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