Landscape change or climatic extremes? Analyzing the main drivers of megafires and the barriers to ecological restoration in the Chilean Mediterranean-climate region

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Juan Armesto and Marcela Bustamante

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Chile differs from other Mediterranean-climate regions because fire has not been a major factor shaping vegetation composition and structure for most of the Holocene. Since 1990, a clear pattern of increasing human-ignited fires poses a major threat to conservation, ecosystem services, and human lives and property. In Chile, megafires devastated nearly a million hectares of agroforestry lands and native vegetation and affected thousands of people between 2017 and 2019. In contemporary Chile, catastrophic fires are strongly linked to: (1) the vicinity of roads and the expansion of the urban-rural interface, (2) the massive expansion of forest production systems based on plantation of highly flammable species (mainly Pinus and Eucalyptus spp.), and (3) climate warming and recent regional droughts. In response to synergies between fire and grazing, vegetation in central Chile is shifting from originally-continuous closed canopies to a mosaic of shrub patches and forestry plantations over a fire-prone ephemeral herbaceous cover that is dominated by non-native species. Recovery and restoration of biodiversity in Chile under this scenario will be complex, as we are dealing with a system going through a critical transition. Reduction of fire risk will depend on our ability to manage the landscape away from the fire-prone condition. While other Mediterranean ecosystems with a long history of fire have ecological legacies and plant traits that favor or speed up recovery, ecosystems in central Chile will likely become dominated by fire-resistant species that prevent recolonization by the original native vegetation.

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Audio/Video, Conference Presentation, SER2019

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Society for Ecological Restoration