Small-scale water deficits after wildfires create long-lasting ecological impacts
This study asked whether success in restoration seedings of the foundational species big sagebrush was related to estimated water deficit in previously burned areas in the western United States. Standardized precipitation-evapotranspiration index (SPEI), a widely used drought index, was not predictive of whether sagebrush had reestablished. In contrast, wet-warm days elicited a critical drought threshold response, with successfully reestablished sites having experienced 7 more wet-warm days than unsuccessful sites during the first March following summer wildfire and restoration. Thus, seemingly small-scale and short-term changes in water availability and temperature can contribute to major ecosystem shifts, as many of these sites remained shrubless two decades later. These findings help clarify the definition of ecological drought for a foundational species and its imperiled semi-arid ecosystem. Drought is well known to affect the occurrence of wildfires, but drought in the year(s) after fire can determine whether fire causes long-lasting, negative impacts on ecosystems.