Return of fire to a free-flowing desert river: Effects on vegetation

Juliet Stromberg, Tyler J. Rychener, Mark D. Dixon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


After a long period in which fuel loads were sparse, fire recently has occurred with high frequency in the ungrazed riparian zone of the Upper San Pedro River in southern Arizona's Chihuahuan Desert. We studied four accidental fires that occurred during 1994-2003 (two in different years at the same site). Woody vegetation was contrasted between three burned sites and matched spatial controls, and before and after the most recent fire. Herbaceous vegetation was sampled in multiple years producing a chronosequence of time since fire (from 4 months to 8 years). Riparian fire was associated with reductions in woody plant species diversity and canopy cover. In contrast, fire caused a short-term (2 year) pulse of herbaceous plant diversity, driven by annual species, and persistent increase in herbaceous cover. Path analysis indicated that the increase in herbaceous cover was mediated in part by the reduction in tree canopy cover. Ordination (nonmetric multidimensional scaling) and regression analysis also indicated that canopy cover and/or fire played a role in structuring the herbaceous community, although its effects were secondary to that of hydrologic factors (stream flow rate, seasonal flood size). By converting riparian forests to grasslands and savannahs, fire may be shifting structure of the Upper San Pedro floodplain vegetation closer toward conditions present during past centuries when fire was frequent in the upland desert grasslands and embedded riparian corridor.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)327-338
Number of pages12
JournalRestoration Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 11 2009


  • Disturbance
  • Diversity
  • Dryland
  • Fire
  • Floodplain
  • Herbaceous
  • Plant community
  • Restoration
  • Riparian
  • River
  • Semiarid
  • Stream flow
  • Vegetation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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