Fire history, related to climate and land use in three southern Appalachian landscapes in the eastern United States. Academic Article uri icon


  • Fire-maintained ecosystems and associated species are becoming increasingly rare in the southern Appalachian Mountains because of fire suppression policies implemented in the early 20th century. Restoration of these communities through prescribed fire has been hindered by a lack of information on historical fire regimes. To characterize past fire regimes, we collected and absolutely dated the tree rings on cross sections from 242 fire-scarred trees at three different sites in the southern Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. Our objectives were to (1) characterize the historical frequency of fire in southern Appalachian mixed pine-oak forests, (2) assess the impact of interannual climatic variability on the historical occurrence of fire, and (3) determine whether changes in human culture and land use altered the frequency of fire. Results demonstrate that fires burned frequently at all three sites for at least two centuries prior to the implementation of fire suppression and prevention in the early to mid 20th century. Composite mean fire return intervals were 2-4 yr, and point mean fire return intervals were 9-13 yr. Area-wide fires that burned across multiple stands occurred at 6-13-yr intervals. The majority of fires were recorded during the dormant season. Fire occurrence exhibited little relationship with reconstructed annual drought conditions. Also, fire activity did not change markedly during the transition from Native American to Euro-American settlement or during the period of industrial logging at the start of the 20th century. Fire activity declined significantly, however, during the fire suppression period, with a nearly complete absence of fire during recent decades. The characterization of past fire regimes should provide managers with specific targets for restoration of fire-associated communities in the southern Appalachian Mountains. The fire chronologies reported here are among the longest tree-ring reconstructions of fire history compiled for the eastern United States and support the hypothesis that frequent burning has played a long and important role in the development of forests in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

published proceedings

  • Ecol Appl

altmetric score

  • 2

author list (cited authors)

  • Flatley, W. T., Lafon, C. W., Grissino-Mayer, H. D., & LaForest, L. B

citation count

  • 56

complete list of authors

  • Flatley, William T||Lafon, Charles W||Grissino-Mayer, Henri D||LaForest, Lisa B

publication date

  • September 2013