Understanding Tree Scarring and Compartmentalization

Research Issue

When a tree survives a fire, the fire still leaves a mark, often deep inside the tree. Trees can react to fire damage by closing wounds or creating barriers between healthy and wounded tissue. These barriers — known as “compartmentalization” — often take the form of fire scars, which can provide a record of fires and environmental conditions. However, fire scars can be difficult to “read,” particularly in living trees, and there’s much to learn about how trees survive in fire-prone environments.

Our Research

Cross-section of a recent fire scar in Douglas Fir. A. The woundwood ribs have closed the wound. Wood beneath the wound is resin soaked (DW). B. Detail of A showing traumatic resin canals associated with the fire scar.Using microscopic and extreme close-up photography, Northern Research Station scientists took a closer look at fire scars in ponderosa pine, western larch and Douglas fir trees from the Lolo National Forest in Montana. They found that, for all three species, compartmentalization was critical in protecting the trunk, preventing infection spread and keeping the tree alive.

Expected Outcomes

Along with other cellular-level findings, this research will help scientists understand historical environmental conditions and how different tree species respond to fire.

Research Results

Stambaugh, Michael C.; Smith, Kevin T.; Dey, Daniel C. 2017. Fire scar growth and closure rates in white oak (Quercus alba) and the implications for prescribed burning. Forest Ecology and Management. 391: 396-403.

Smith, Kevin T.; Arbellay, Estelle; Falk, Donald A.; Sutherland, Elaine Kennedy. 2016. Macroanatomy and compartmentalization of recent fire scars in three North American conifers. Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 46: 535-542.

Smith, Kevin T. 2015. Compartmentalization, resource allocation, and wood quality. Current Forestry Reports. 1(1): 8-15.

Arbellay, Estelle; Stoffel, Markus; Sutherland, Elaine K.; Smith, Kevin T.; Falk, Donald A. 2014. Changes in tracheid and ray traits in fire scars of North American conifers and their ecophysiological implications. Annals of Botany. 114: 223-232.

Arbellay, Estelle; Stoffel, Markus; Sutherland, Elaine K.; Smith, Kevin T.; Falk, Donald A. 2014. Resin duct size and density as ecophysiological traits in fire scars of Pseudotsuga menziesii and Larix occidentalis. Annals of Botany. 114(5): 973-980.

Research Participants

Principal Investigator

  • Kevin T. Smith, US Forest Service – Northern Research Station, Supervisory Plant Physiologist

Research Partners

  • Last modified: August 24, 2018