The importance of fire in shaping Appalachian vegetation has become increasingly apparent over the last 25 years. This period has seen declines in oak (Quercus) and pine (Pinus) forests and other fire-dependent ecosystems, which in the near-exclusion of fire are being replaced by fire-sensitive mesophytic vegetation. These vegetation changes imply that Appalachian vegetation had developed under a history of burning before the fire-exclusion era, a possibility that has motivated investigations of Appalachian fire history using proxy evidence. Here we synthesize those investigations to obtain an up-to-date portrayal of Appalachian fire history. We organize the report by data type, beginning with studies of high-resolution data on recent fires to provide a context for interpreting the lower-resolution proxy data. Each proxy is addressed in a subsequent chapter, beginning with witness trees and continuing to fire-scarred trees, stand age structure, and soil and sediment charcoal. Taken together, these proxies portray frequent burning in the past. Fires had occurred at short intervals (a few years) for centuries before the fire-exclusion era. Indeed, burning has played an important ecological role for millennia. Fires were especially common and spatially extensive on landscapes with large expanses of oak and pine forest, notably in the Ridge and Valley province and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Burning favored oak and pine at the expense of mesophytic competitors, but fire exclusion has enabled mesophytic plants to expand from fire-sheltered sites onto dry slopes that formerly supported pyrogenic vegetation. These changes underscore the need to restore fire-dependent ecosystems.
Lafon, Charles W.; Naito, Adam T.; Grissino-Mayer, Henri D.; Horn, Sally P.; Waldrop, Thomas A. 2017. Fire history of the Appalachian region: a review and synthesis. General Technical Report SRS-219. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Research Station. 97 p.