Unearthing the legacy of wildfires: post fire pyrogenic carbon and soil carbon persistence across complex Pacific Northwest watersheds

Publications Type: 
Journal Article
Publication Number: 

Peter-Contesse, Hayley; Lajtha, Kate; Boettcher, Aron; O’Kelley, Regina; Mayedo, Amy. 2024. Unearthing the legacy of wildfires: post fire pyrogenic carbon and soil carbon persistence across complex Pacific Northwest watersheds. Biogeochemistry. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-024-01151-1


Wildfires have the potential to dramatically alter the carbon (C) storage potential, ecological function, and the fundamental mechanisms that control the C balance of Pacific Northwest (PNW) forested ecosystems. In this study, we explored how wildfire influences processes that control soil C stabilization and the consequent soil C persistence, and the role of previous fire history in determining soil C fire response dynamics. We collected mineral soils at four depth increments from burned (low, moderate, and high soil burn severity classes) and unburned areas and surveyed coarse woody debris (CWD) in sites within the footprint of the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire and in surrounding Willamette National Forest and the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. We found few changes in overall soil C pools as a function of fire severity; we instead found that unburned sites contained high levels of pyrogenic C (PyC) that were commensurate with PyC concentrations in the high severity burn sites—pointing to the high background rate of fire in these ecosystems. An analysis of historical fire events lends additional support, where increasing fire count is loosely correlated with increasing PyC concentration. An unexpected finding was that PyC concentration was lower in low soil burn severity sites than in control sites, which we attribute to fundamental ecological differences in regions that repeatedly burn at high severity compared with those that burn at low severity. Our CWD analysis showed that high mean fire return interval (decades between fire events) was strongly correlated with low annual CWD accumulation rate; whereas areas that burn frequently had a high annual CWD accumulation rate. Within the first year postfire, trends in soil density fractions demonstrated no significant response to fire for the mineral-associated organic matter pool but slight increases in the particulate pool with increasing soil burn severity—likely a function of increased charcoal additions. Overall, our results suggest that these PNW forest soils display complex responses to wildfire with feedbacks between CWD pools that provide varying fuel loads and a mosaic fire regime across the landscape. Microclimate and historic fire events are likely important determinants of soil C persistence in these systems.
Keywords: Soil carbon persistence, Wildfire, Pyrogenic carbon, Forest fire history, Coarse woody debris