skip to main content

Title: Projected increases in western US forest fire despite growing fuel constraints

Escalating burned area in western US forests punctuated by the 2020 fire season has heightened the need to explore near-term macroscale forest-fire area trajectories. As fires remove fuels for subsequent fires, feedbacks may impose constraints on the otherwise climate-driven trend of increasing forest-fire area. Here, we test how fire-fuel feedbacks moderate near-term (2021–2050) climate-driven increases in forest-fire area across the western US. Assuming constant fuels, climate–fire models project a doubling of  forest-fire area compared to 1991–2020. Fire-fuel feedbacks only modestly attenuate the projected increase in forest-fire area. Even models with strong feedbacks project increasing interannual variability in forest-fire area and more than a two-fold increase in the likelihood of years exceeding the 2020 fire season. Fuel limitations from fire-fuel feedbacks are unlikely to strongly constrain the profound climate-driven broad-scale increases in forest-fire area by the mid-21st century, highlighting the need for proactive adaptation to increased western US forest-fire impacts.

; ; ; ; ;
Award ID(s):
2019762 2019813
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Communications Earth & Environment
Nature Publishing Group
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract Forest characteristics, structure, and dynamics within the North American boreal region are heavily influenced by wildfire intensity, severity, and frequency. Increasing temperatures are likely to result in drier conditions and longer fire seasons, potentially leading to more intense and frequent fires. However, an increase in deciduous forest cover is also predicted across the region, potentially decreasing flammability. In this study, we use an individual tree-based forest model to test bottom-up (i.e. fuels) vs top-down (i.e. climate) controls on fire activity and project future forest and wildfire dynamics. The University of Virginia Forest Model Enhanced is an individual tree-based forest model that has been successfully updated and validated within the North American boreal zone. We updated the model to better characterize fire ignition and behavior in relation to litter and fire weather conditions, allowing for further interactions between vegetation, soils, fire, and climate. Model output following updates showed good agreement with combustion observations at individual sites within boreal Alaska and western Canada. We then applied the updated model at sites within interior Alaska and the Northwest Territories to simulate wildfire and forest response to climate change under moderate (RCP 4.5) and extreme (RCP 8.5) scenarios. Results suggest that changing climatemore »will act to decrease biomass and increase deciduous fraction in many regions of boreal North America. These changes are accompanied by decreases in fire probability and average fire intensity, despite fuel drying, indicating a negative feedback of fuel loading on wildfire. These simulations demonstrate the importance of dynamic fuels and dynamic vegetation in predicting future forest and wildfire conditions. The vegetation and wildfire changes predicted here have implications for large-scale changes in vegetation composition, biomass, and wildfire severity across boreal North America, potentially resulting in further feedbacks to regional and even global climate and carbon cycling.« less
  2. Abstract

    Wildfires are a significant agent of disturbance in forests and highly sensitive to climate change. Short-interval fires and high severity (mortality-causing) fires in particular, may catalyze rapid and substantial ecosystem shifts by eliminating woody species and triggering conversions from forest to shrub or grassland ecosystems. Modeling and fine-scale observations suggest negative feedbacks between fire and fuels should limit reburn prevalence as overall fire frequency rises. However, while we have good information on reburning patterns for individual fires or small regions, the validity of scaling these conclusions to broad regions like the US West remains unknown. Both the prevalence of reburning and the strength of feedbacks on likelihood of reburning over differing timescales have not been documented at the regional scale. Here we show that while there is a strong negative feedback for very short reburning intervals throughout wildland forests of the Western US, that feedback weakens after 10–20 years. The relationship between reburning intervals and drought diverges depending on location, with coastal systems reburning quicker (e.g. shorter interval between fires) in wetter conditions and interior forests in drier. This supports the idea that vegetation productivity—primarily fine fuels that accumulate rapidly (<10 years)—is of primary importance in determining reburn intervals.more »Our results demonstrate that while over short time intervals increasing fires inhibits reburning at broad scales, that breaks down after a decade. This provides important insights about patterns at very broad scales and agrees with finer scale work, suggesting that lessons from those scales apply across the entire western US.

    « less
  3. Climate change has intensified the scale of global wildfire impacts in recent decades. In order to reduce fire impacts, management policies are being proposed in the western United States to lower fire risk that focus on harvesting trees, including large-diameter trees. Many policies already do not include diameter limits and some recent policies have proposed diameter increases in fuel reduction strategies. While the primary goal is fire risk reduction, these policies have been interpreted as strategies that can be used to save trees from being killed by fire, thus preventing carbon emissions and feedbacks to climate warming. This interpretation has already resulted in cutting down trees that likely would have survived fire, resulting in forest carbon losses that are greater than if a wildfire had occurred. To help policymakers and managers avoid these unintended carbon consequences and to present carbon emission sources in the same context, we calculate western United States forest fire carbon emissions and compare them with harvest and fossil fuel emissions (FFE) over the same timeframe. We find that forest fire carbon emissions are on average only 6% of anthropogenic FFE over the past decade. While wildfire occurrence and area burned have increased over the last threemore »decades, per area fire emissions for extreme fire events are relatively constant. In contrast, harvest of mature trees releases a higher density of carbon emissions (e.g., per unit area) relative to wildfire (150–800%) because harvest causes a higher rate of tree mortality than wildfire. Our results show that increasing harvest of mature trees to save them from fire increases emissions rather than preventing them. Shown in context, our results demonstrate that reducing FFEs will do more for climate mitigation potential (and subsequent reduction of fire) than increasing extractive harvest to prevent fire emissions. On public lands, management aimed at less-intensive fuels reduction (such as removal of “ladder” fuels, i.e., shrubs and small-diameter trees) will help to balance reducing catastrophic fire and leave live mature trees on the landscape to continue carbon uptake.« less
  4. Abstract

    Circum-boreal and -tundra systems are crucial carbon pools that are experiencing amplified warming and are at risk of increasing wildfire activity. Changes in wildfire activity have broad implications for vegetation dynamics, underlying permafrost soils, and ultimately, carbon cycling. However, understanding wildfire effects on biophysical processes across eastern Siberian taiga and tundra remains challenging because of the lack of an easily accessible annual fire perimeter database and underestimation of area burned by MODIS satellite imagery. To better understand wildfire dynamics over the last 20 years in this region, we mapped area burned, generated a fire perimeter database, and characterized fire regimes across eight ecozones spanning 7.8 million km2of eastern Siberian taiga and tundra from ∼61–72.5° N and 100° E–176° W using long-term satellite data from Landsat, processed via Google Earth Engine. We generated composite images for the annual growing season (May–September), which allowed mitigation of missing data from snow-cover, cloud-cover, and the Landsat 7 scan line error. We used annual composites to calculate the difference Normalized Burn Ratio (dNBR) for each year. The annual dNBR images were converted to binary burned or unburned imagery that was used to vectorize fire perimeters. We mapped 22 091 fires burning 152 million hectaresmore »(Mha) over 20 years. Although 2003 was the largest fire year on record, 2020 was an exceptional fire year for four of the northeastern ecozones resulting in substantial increases in fire activity above the Arctic Circle. Increases in fire extent, severity, and frequency with continued climate warming will impact vegetation and permafrost dynamics with increased likelihood of irreversible permafrost thaw that leads to increased carbon release and/or conversion of forest to shrublands.

    « less
  5. Abstract

    Extreme wildfires are increasing in frequency globally, prompting new efforts to mitigate risk. The ecological appropriateness of risk mitigation strategies, however, depends on what factors are driving these increases. While regional syntheses attribute increases in fire activity to both climate change and fuel accumulation through fire exclusion, they have not disaggregated causal drivers at scales where land management is implemented. Recent advances in fire regime modeling can help us understand which drivers dominate at management-relevant scales. We conducted fire regime simulations using historical climate and fire exclusion scenarios across two watersheds in the Inland Northwestern U.S., which occur at different positions along an aridity continuum. In one watershed, climate change was the key driver increasing burn probability and the frequency of large fires; in the other, fire exclusion dominated in some locations. We also demonstrate that some areas become more fuel-limited as fire-season aridity increases due to climate change. Thus, even within watersheds, fuel management must be spatially and temporally explicit to optimize effectiveness. To guide management, we show that spatial estimates of soil aridity (or temporally averaged soil moisture) can provide a relatively simple, first-order indicator of where in a watershed fire regime is climate vs. fuel-limited andmore »where fire regimes are most vulnerable to change.

    « less