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Wildfires in southern Chile

November 29th, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Ecosystems in southern Chile are not considered among the typical fire-prone ecosystems such as tropical savannas or mediterranean ecosystems. However, natural wildfires do occur (and has occurred since long ago), during drought periods, and are part of the ecological processes of the region. Here are some examples I have just visited.

Fitzroya cupressoides (alerce in Spanish, lahuán or lawal in Mapuche) is a shade-intolerant long-lived conifer native to the Andes of southern Chile and Argentina. Fitzroya is a monotypic genus in the cypress family. It often coexist with shade-tolerant species of Nothofagus (e.g., N. nitida). The bark of Fitzroya is relatively thick, and postfire tree survival depends on the intensity of fire; fire intensity in these ecosystems is typically patchy and some trees, especially large trees, do survive (Fig. 1 below and [1]). In fact, wildfires remove the shade-tolerant trees and open the space for Fitzroya which regenerates vegetatively (from root suckers) or from seeds coming from the surviving trees. Without wildfires, it would be hard for Fitzroya to compete with shade-tolerant broad-leaved trees.

Fig. 1. Dead and surviving Fitzroya cupressoides trees after fire in Parque Nacional Alerce Costero, Chile

Araucaria araucana (araucaria) is a conifer, considered a living fossil, native to central and southern Chile and western Argentina. It is a non-flammable tree (sensu [2]) because it typically self-prune their lower branches, the crown is quite open, it has a thick bark, and their foliage is hard and difficult to burn. This very low flammability allows Araucaria to survive even in flammable environments [2]. For instance, it occurs in shrublands of Nothofagus antartica (ñirre; see Fig. 2 below); this Nothofagus is a flammable multi-stemmed shrub that has a strong basal resprouting ability. This shrubland burn with some frequency but most Araucaria tree do not get burnt (fire can leave some scars in the trunk, see Fig. 3 below and dendroecological analysis in [3]). Araucaria araucana also growth in dens forests either as dominant tree or with other trees such as Nothofagus pumilo (lenga); such forest rarely burn and the regeneration of araucaria is based on gap dynamics. In fact, the two ecosystems (the shrublands of N. antartica, and the forests of N. pumilo) are an example of alternative biome states [4,5].

Fig. 2. Araucaria araucana growing in a shurbland of Nothofagus antartica (ñirre) in the foothills of the Lanín volcano, Chile
Fig. 3. Fire scars in three araucaria alive trees in the foothills of the Lanín volcano, Chile


[1] Lara A, Fraver S, Aravena JC & Wolodarsky-Franke A. 1999. Fire and the dynamics of Fitzroya cupressoides (alerce) forests of Chile’s Cordillera Pelada. Ecoscience, 6, 100-109.

[2] Pausas JG, Keeley JE, Schwilk DW. 2017. Flammability as an ecological and evolutionary driver. J. Ecol. 105: 289-297. [doi | wiley | pdf]
[post-1 | post-2]

[3] González ME, Veblen TT & Sibold JS. 2005. Fire history of Araucaria–Nothofagus forests in Villarrica National Park, Chile. J. Biogeogr. 32:1187-1202.

[4] Pausas JG. 2015. Alternative fire-driven vegetation states. J. Veget. Sci. 26:4-6. [doi | pdf | suppl.]

[5] Pausas JG & Bond WJ. 2020. Alternative biome states in terrestrial ecosystems. Trend Plant Sci. [postprint]


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