Reconstructing historical fire regimes is difficult at the landscape scale, but essential to determine whether modern fires are unnaturally severe. I synthesized evidence across 725,000 ha of montane forests in the San Juan Mountains, Colorado, from forest atlases, forest-reserve reports, fire-scar studies, early reports, and newspaper accounts. Atlases mapped moderate- to high-severity fires during 1850–1909 (~60 years), and 86% of atlas area was attributable to 24 fire years. Historical fire rotations from atlases were mostly 225–360 years for high-severity fires and 133–185 years for moderate- to high-severity fires. Historical low-severity fire from tree-ring data at 33 sites revealed a median fire rotation of 31 years in ponderosa pine, 78 years in dry mixed-conifer, and 113 years in moist mixed-conifer forests. Only 15% of montane sites had “frequent-fire” forests with fire rotations <25 years that kept understory fuels at low levels. Moderate- to high-severity fire rotations were long enough to enable old-growth forests, but short enough to foster heterogeneous landscapes with expanses of recovering forests and openings. About 38–39% is still recovering from the 1850–1909 fires. Large, infrequent severe fires historically enhanced resilience to subsequent beetle outbreaks, droughts, and fires, but have burned at lower rates in the last few decades.
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