Delayed fire mortality has long‐term ecological effects across the Southern Appalachian landscape
Fire is a critical ecological process to the forests of the Southern Appalachians. Where fire was excluded from forest types that historically burned frequently, unanticipated changes can occur when fire is reintroduced. For example, the development of new fuel characteristics can change the patterns of fire mortality and associated ecological responses. To test the fire effects of delayed fire mortality (mortality initiated by fire that occurs subsequent to the fire year) in the Southern Appalachians, USA, we developed a fire-effects model using both field studies and remote sensing. We then simulated these effects at a landscape scale to estimate broader ecological effects. Fire-effects models that accounted for delayed mortality increased landscape biomass removed annually (~23%) and increased the number of sites with high light conditions (leaf area index < 4) when compared to simulations that only account for immediate mortality. While delayed mortality occurred across species and age classes, it was especially prevalent among older trees (>100 years old) and fire-resistant species (Quercus spp.). Overall, regeneration (trees <20 years old) changed very little, even with the inclusion of delayed mortality. This evidence suggests that, even when accounting for delayed mortality, individual fires are unlikely to shift the landscape composition toward the conditions of forests prior to fire exclusion and may even increase mesophication long term due to the loss of overstory dominant xeric trees.