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  1. In an increasingly flammable world, wildfire is altering the terrestrial carbon balance. However, the degree to which novel wildfire regimes disrupt biological function remains unclear. Here, we synthesize the current understanding of above- and belowground processes that govern carbon loss and recovery across diverse ecosystems. We find that intensifying wildfire regimes are increasingly exceeding biological thresholds of resilience, causing ecosystems to convert to a lower carbon-carrying capacity. Growing evidence suggests that plants compensate for fire damage by allocating carbon belowground to access nutrients released by fire, while wildfire selects for microbial communities with rapid growth rates and the ability to metabolize pyrolysed carbon. Determining controls on carbon dynamics following wildfire requires integration of experimental and modelling frameworks across scales and ecosystems. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available December 1, 2024
  2. Novel climate and disturbance regimes in the 21st century threaten to increase the vulnerability of some western U.S. forests to loss of biomass and function. However, the timing and magnitude of forest vulnerabilities are uncertain and will be highly variable across the complex biophysical landscape of the region. Assessing future forest trajectories and potential management impacts under novel conditions requires place-specific and mechanistic model projections. Stakeholders in the high-carbon density forests of the northern U.S. Rocky Mountains (NRM) currently seek to understand and mitigate climate risks to these diverse conifer forests, which experienced profound 20th century disturbance from the 1910 “Big Burn” and timber harvest. Present forest management plan revisions consider approaches including increases in timber harvest that are intended to shift species compositions and increase forest stress tolerance. We utilize CLM-FATES, a dynamic vegetation model (DVM) coupled to an Earth Systems Model (ESM), to model shifting NRM forest carbon stocks and cover, production, and disturbance through 2100 under unprecedented climate and management. Across all 21st century scenarios, domain forest C-stocks and canopy cover face decline after 2090 due to the interaction of intermittent drought and fire mortality with declining Net Primary Production (NPP) and post-disturbance recovery. However, mid-century increases in forest vulnerability to fire and drought impacts are not consistently projected across climate models due to increases in precipitation that buffer warming impacts. Under all climate scenarios, increased harvest regimes diminish forest carbon stocks and increase period mortality over business-as-usual, despite some late-century reductions in forest stress. Results indicate that existing forest carbon stocks and functions are moderately persistent and that increased near-term removals may be mistimed for effectively increasing resilience.

     
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available September 12, 2024
  3. Abstract

    Forests mitigate climate change by sequestering massive amounts of carbon, but recent increases in wildfire activity are threatening carbon storage. Currently, our understanding of wildfire impacts on forest resilience and the mechanisms controlling post-fire recovery remains unresolved due to a lack of empirical data on mature trees in natural settings. Here, we quantify the physiological mechanisms controlling carbon uptake immediately following wildfire in mature individuals of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), a wide-spread and canopy-dominant tree species in fire-prone forests. While photosynthetic capacity was lower in burned than unburned trees due to an overall depletion of resources, we show that within the burned trees, photosynthetic capacity increases with the severity of damage. Our data reveal that boosts in the efficiency of carbon uptake at the leaf-level may compensate for whole-tree damage, including the loss of leaf area and roots. We further show that heightened photosynthetic capacity in remaining needles on burned trees may be linked with reduced water stress and leaf nitrogen content, providing pivotal information about post-fire physiological processes. Our results have implications for Earth system modeling efforts because measurements of species-level physiological parameters are used in models to predict ecosystem and landscape-level carbon trajectories. Finally, current land management practices do not account for physiological resilience and recovery of severely burned trees. Our results suggest premature harvest may remove individuals that may otherwise survive, irrevocably altering forest carbon balance.

     
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  4. 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 three 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. 
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  5. 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. 
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  6. 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.

     
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  7. 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 water 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. 
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  8. 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 and where fire regimes are most vulnerable to change.

     
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  9. null (Ed.)
    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 keep 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. 
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  10. Summary

    Disruption of photosynthesis and carbon transport due to damage to the tree crown and stem cambial cells, respectively, can cause tree mortality. It has recently been proposed that fire‐induced dysfunction of xylem plays an important role in tree mortality. Here, we simultaneously tested the impact of a lethal fire dose on nonstructural carbohydrates (NSCs) and xylem hydraulics inPinus ponderosasaplings.

    Saplings were burned with a known lethal fire dose. Nonstructural carbohydrates were assessed in needles, main stems, roots and whole plants, and xylem hydraulic conductivity was measured in the main stems up to 29 d postfire.

    Photosynthesis and whole plant NSCs declined postfire. Additionally, all burned saplings showed 100% phloem/cambium necrosis, and roots of burned saplings had reduced NSCs compared to unburned and defoliated saplings. We further show that, contrary to patterns observed with NSCs, water transport was unchanged by fire and there was no evidence of xylem deformation in saplings that experienced a lethal dose of heat from fire.

    We conclude that phloem and cambium mortality, and not hydraulic failure, were probably the causes of death in these saplings. These findings advance our understanding of the physiological response to fire‐induced injuries in conifer trees.

     
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