Biomass combustion is a major biogeochemical process, but uncertain in magnitude. We examined multiple levels of organization (twigs, branches, trees, stands, and landscapes) in large, severe forest fires to see how combustion rates for live aboveground woody parts varied with tree species, size, and fire severity in Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa
Dougl. ex Laws.) and mixed conifer-dominated forests of the Sierra Nevada, California, USA. In high severity fire patches, most combustion loss was from branches < 2 cm diameter; in low to moderate severity patches, most was from bole charring. Combustion rates decreased as fire severity declined and with increasing tree size. Pinus
species had little branch combustion, leading them to have ≈50% the combustion rate of other taxa. Combustion rates could be 100% for small branch segments and up to 57% for small tree aboveground woody biomass in high severity fire patches. However, combustion rates are very low overall at the stand (0.1%–3.2%) and landscape level (0.6%–1.8%), because large trees with low combustion rates comprise the majority of biomass, and high severity fire patches are less than half of the area burned. Our findings of low live wood combustion rates have important implications for policies related to wildfire emissions and forest management.
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