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  1. 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
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available May 9, 2023
  2. Free, publicly-accessible full text available March 1, 2023
  3. Abstract Increasing fire impacts across North America are associated with climate and vegetation change, greater exposure through development expansion, and less-well studied but salient social vulnerabilities. We are at a critical moment in the contemporary human-fire relationship, with an urgent need to transition from emergency response to proactive measures that build sustainable communities, protect human health, and restore the use of fire necessary for maintaining ecosystem processes. We propose an integrated risk factor that includes fire and smoke hazard, exposure, and vulnerability as a method to identify ‘fires that matter’, that is, fires that have potentially devastating impacts on our communities. This approach enables pathways to delineate and prioritise science-informed planning strategies most likely to increase community resilience to fires.
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available March 24, 2023
  4. Abstract

    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.

  5. Abstract. Mountain pine beetle (MPB) outbreaks in the western United States result inwidespread tree mortality, transforming forest structure within watersheds.While there is evidence that these changes can alter the timing and quantity of streamflow, there is substantial variation in both the magnitude and direction of hydrologic responses, and the climatic and environmental mechanisms driving this variation are not well understood. Herein, we coupled an eco-hydrologic model (RHESSys) with a beetle effects model and applied it to a semiarid watershed, Trail Creek, in the Bigwood River basin in central Idaho, USA, to examine how varying degrees of beetle-caused tree mortality influence water yield. Simulation results show that water yield during the first 15 years after beetle outbreak is controlled by interactions between interannual climate variability, the extent of vegetation mortality, and long-term aridity. During wet years, water yield after a beetle outbreak increased with greater tree mortality; this was driven by mortality-caused decreases in evapotranspiration. During dry years, water yield decreased at low-to-medium mortality but increased at high mortality. The mortality threshold for the direction of change was location specific. The change in water yield also varied spatially along aridity gradients during dry years. In wetter areas of the Trail Creek basin, post-outbreak watermore »yield decreased at low mortality (driven by an increase in ground evaporation) and increased when vegetation mortality was greater than 40 % (driven by a decrease in canopy evaporation and transpiration). In contrast, in more water-limited areas, water yield typically decreased after beetle outbreaks, regardless of mortality level (although the driving mechanisms varied). Our findings highlight the complexity and variability of hydrologic responses and suggest that long-term (i.e., multi-decadal mean) aridity can be a useful indicator for the direction of water yield changes after a disturbance.« less
  6. 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.

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    We review science-based adaptation strategies for western North American (wNA) forests that include restoring active fire regimes and fostering resilient structure and composition of forested landscapes. As part of the review, we address common questions associated with climate adaptation and realignment treatments that run counter to a broad consensus in the literature. These include: (1) Are the effects of fire exclusion overstated? If so, are treatments unwarranted and even counterproductive? (2) Is forest thinning alone sufficient to mitigate wildfire hazard? (3) Can forest thinning and prescribed burning solve the problem? (4) Should active forest management, including forest thinning, be concentrated in the wildland urban interface (WUI)? (5) Can wildfires on their own do the work of fuel treatments? (6) Is the primary objective of fuel reduction treatments to assist in future firefighting response and containment? (7) Do fuel treatments work under extreme fire weather? (8) Is the scale of the problem too great – can we ever catch up? (9) Will planting more trees mitigate climate change in wNA forests? and (10) Is post-fire management needed or even ecologically justified? Based on our review of the scientific evidence, a range of proactive management actions are justified and necessary to keepmore »pace with changing climatic and wildfire regimes and declining forest successional heterogeneity after severe wildfires. Science-based adaptation options include the use of managed wildfire, prescribed burning, and coupled mechanical thinning and prescribed burning as is consistent with land management allocations and forest conditions. Although some current models of fire management in wNA are averse to short-term risks and uncertainties, the long-term environmental, social, and cultural consequences of wildfire management primarily grounded in fire suppression are well documented, highlighting an urgency to invest in intentional forest management and restoration of active fire regimes.« less
  8. Abstract

    Recent extreme fire seasons in California have prompted utilities such as Pacific Gas and Electric to pre-emptively de-energize portions of the electrical grid during periods of extreme fire weather to reduce the risk of powerline-related fire ignitions. The policy was deployed in 2019, resulting in 12 million person-days of power outages and widespread societal disruption. Retrospective weather and vegetation moisture data highlight hotspots of historical risk across northern California. We estimate an average of 1.6 million person-days of de-energization per year, based on recent historical climate conditions and assuming publicly stated utility de-energization thresholds. We further estimate an additional 70% increase in the population affected by de-energization when vegetation remains abnormally dry later into autumn—suggesting that climate change will likely increase population vulnerable to de-energization. Adaptation efforts to curtail fire risk can be beneficial, but efforts to prepare affected populations, modernize the grid, and refine decision-making surrounding such policies have high potential to reduce the magnitude of negative externalities experienced during the 2019 de-energization events.