Wildland fire disturbance – recovery dynamics in upland forests at Acadia National Park, Maine

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

Dissertation by Jessica E. Charpentier.

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Abstract: The overall goal of this study was to evaluate whether coastal Maine (USA) forests are resilient to changing climate and fire regimes. The occurrence of a catastrophic wildfire at Acadia National Park (ANP) in 1947 provided a unique opportunity to examine the impacts of wildfire on forest dynamics in upland communities of coastal spruce-fir and northern hardwood forests of the Maine coast. This study, conducted 68 years after the stand-replacing 1947 Bar Harbor Fire, builds on studies by W.A. Patterson conducted in 1980 and 1992-1994, 33 and 45-47 years after the fire. There were two lines of investigation in this study: vegetation change following a large-scale, stand-replacing wildfire; and an assessment of wildfire risk following a long period with no major disturbance.

In 2016 I quantified and characterized stand and site characteristics including: basal area and stem density of woody species; aboveground biomass and necromass of trees, saplings, and shrubs; dead downed woody fuel loads; duff depth; fuel height; soil depth to bedrock, and canopy closure for 23 stands throughout ANP. To evaluate long-term trends in post-fire recovery, I compared 2016 forest composition, structure and fuel loading data with that in 1980 and 1992-94. I mapped current wildfire risk to aid managers in identifying where mitigation practices would be most effective in reducing fire risk. I used an ArcGIS model that extends field data of current fuel conditions and spatially portrays wildfire risk across the landscape. Mixed effects models were used to determine the best remotely sensed numeric biomass data as a predictor of biomass and necromass measured on the ground.

Widespread regeneration of red spruce following the initial establishment of aspen and birch suggests that forests of ANP are resilient to wildfire. Stands that did not burn in 1947 iii remain as mature-to-overmature spruce and fir. Biomass and necromass is continuting to accumulate. Fuel loads are generally high to very high outside the 1947 fire boundary. Within the fire boundary, fuel loads are primarily low to moderate, with small areas of high to very high risk due to topography (e.g., steep versus shallow slopes, north versus south aspect) and unique species composition (e.g., maturing pitch pine/heath communities). After 70 years, replacement of aspen and birch by spruce and fir in many stands suggests potentially increasing wildfire risk within the 1947 fire boundary.

Mount Desert Island has and will continue to experience a marked increase in human development and visitation, thereby increasing the likelihood of human-caused ignitions. This, coupled with increasing fuel loads, may significantly increase the likelihood of wildfire occurrence. An uncertain climate future may exacerbate potential wildfire risk. Should climate warm substantially, spruce-fir stands may break up prematurely – significantly increasing dead, downed fuel for a period of time. Fire management programs should plan to operate strategically and efficiently to meet this challenge