Quantifying historical fire regimes provides important information for managing contemporary forests. Historical fire frequency and severity can be estimated using several methods; each method has strengths and weaknesses and presents challenges for interpretation and verification. Recent efforts to quantify the timing of historical high-severity fire events in forests of western North America have assumed that the “stand age” variable from the US Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program reflects the timing of historical high-severity (i.e. stand-replacing) fire in ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests. To test this assumption, we re-analyze the dataset used in a previous analysis, and compare information from fire history records with information from co-located FIA plots. We demonstrate that 1) the FIA stand age variable does not reflect the large range of individual tree ages in the FIA plots: older trees comprised more than 10% of pre-stand age basal area in 58% of plots analyzed and more than 30% of pre-stand age basal area in 32% of plots, and 2) recruitment events are not necessarily related to high-severity fire occurrence. Because the FIA stand age variable is estimated from a sample of tree ages within the tree size class containing a plurality of canopy trees in the plot, it does not necessarily include the oldest trees, especially in uneven-aged stands. Thus, the FIA stand age variable does not indicate whether the trees in the predominant size class established in response to severe fire, or established during the absence of fire. FIA stand age was not designed to measure the time since a stand-replacing disturbance. Quantification of historical “mixed-severity” fire regimes must be explicit about the spatial scale of high-severity fire effects, which is not possible using FIA stand age data.
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