Wildfire, a primary natural disturbance in many forests, affects soil nutrient availability and spatial distributions of forest plants. However, post-fire changes in soil nutrients and spatial patterns of understory environments at fine scales are poorly understood. Here, we characterized spatial patterns of soil nitrogen availability and site characteristics at a 3-year-post-fire and an unburned site in a valley boreal larch forest. We also examined the relationship between soil nitrogen availability and site characteristics. The results showed that the burned site had higher NO3 and lower NH4+ than the control. The herb, litter and coarse wood debris cover was greater at the burned site than at the control site with higher soil pH, depth of the organic horizon (DOH) and shrub cover. Relative variability (coefficient of variation) in soil nitrogen and site characteristic variables at the control site was greater than at the burned site except for shrub and regeneration tree seedling cover. Spatial structure (quantified by semi-variograms) was lacking for soil nitrogen and site characteristic variables except for DOH, herb and shrub cover at the control site, but wildfire created a strong spatial structure for all variables. Shorter spatial autocorrelation ranges of soil nitrogen (1.6–3.5 m) and site characteristic variables (2.6–6.0 m) were detected at the burned site, indicating higher heterogeneity. The spatial scale of soil NH4+ was congruent with those of herb, shrub and regeneration tree seedling cover, indicating local coupling, while that of soil NO3 was not. The number of correlations between soil nitrogen and site characteristic variables in the burned site was greater than in the control. These results indicate that fire could not only create higher heterogeneity patches of soil resources, but also strengthen the local coupling between soil resources and understory vegetation, which may impact the establishment and growth of new individual plants.

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Published in Forests, v. 10, issue 2, 95, p. 1-16.

© 2019 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.

This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

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This research was funded by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2017YFA0604403), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41501200, 31800376, 31800395), Doctoral programs from Liaoning Province (201601151) and Shenyang Normal University (bs201507).