Charting: Identifying Optimal Areas for Forest Fire Mitigation with High Benefits for Both People and the Climate

The U.S. government has allocated a substantial $7 billion to address the escalating wildfire crisis in the coming years. This commitment involves expanding efforts in forest thinning and controlled burns to treat at least 60 million acres over the next decade. However, this ambitious effort, while significant, falls short of addressing the full extent of the problem.

So, where should taxpayers focus their resources for the greatest impact? As a fire ecologist based in Montana, I, along with my colleagues, conducted a new study to pinpoint the areas where forest treatments can offer the most comprehensive protection. This means safeguarding communities by preventing wildfires from turning into devastating disasters while also preserving the forests and mitigating climate change by keeping carbon locked away in healthy soils and trees.

Historically, forests and wildfires have been closely intertwined in the Western United States. Fires in dry conifer forests, like ponderosa pine, used to occur regularly, naturally clearing out underbrush and small trees. These fires had limited fuel and mostly stayed close to the ground, causing minimal damage to larger, mature trees. However, this changed with European colonization and the suppression of wildfires, leading to an accumulation of excess fuel in dry conifer forests, allowing wildfires to climb into the tree canopy.

In addition to excess fuels, climate change has brought hotter and drier wildfire seasons to all types of forests. The increasing human presence in and around these forests, along with infrastructure like roads and power lines, has heightened the risk of wildfire ignition. Consequently, a larger area in the Western U.S. is now burning at high severity.

As a response, the U.S. is under pressure to simultaneously protect communities from severe wildfires and reduce the carbon emissions associated with these fires.

To identify areas with the most potential for effective forest treatments, we began by identifying locations where forest carbon is most susceptible to wildfire-related loss compared to other regions. We considered the likelihood of wildfires, estimating carbon losses through smoke emissions and decomposition. Moreover, we assessed whether the post-fire conditions would be too harsh for trees to regenerate. Forest regrowth is essential as it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequesters it in wood, eventually compensating for the carbon lost during a fire.

Our analysis revealed that forests in California, New Mexico, and Arizona were particularly prone to significant carbon losses during wildfires and faced challenges in regeneration. By comparing these findings with existing maps detailing high wildfire risk to communities, we identified several hotspots where efforts to reduce wildfire risk to communities also align with stabilizing carbon storage.

Areas around Flagstaff, Arizona; Placerville, California; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Hamilton, Montana; Taos, New Mexico; Medford, Oregon, and Wenatchee, Washington, offer promising opportunities for achieving both wildfire risk reduction and carbon stabilization goals.

Forest thinning and controlled burning are akin to weeding a garden; they create space for larger, older trees to thrive by removing underbrush and smaller trees in dry conifer forests. Frequent controlled burns maintain this open environment and reduce understory fuels, which, in turn, keeps wildfire flames closer to the ground and away from the tree canopy.

While forest thinning and controlled burns temporarily remove carbon, they enhance the chances of mature trees surviving future wildfires. In the long term, this benefits carbon storage and the climate. Living trees continue to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere, provide essential seeds, and offer shade for seedlings to regenerate, ultimately recovering the carbon lost to fires.

However, it’s essential to recognize that forest thinning and controlled burning are not a sole solution. Property owners can follow advice from programs like the National Fire Protection Agency’s Firewise to make their properties less susceptible to wildfires. Controlled burns under safe conditions can also reduce the severity of future wildfires. Moreover, addressing the root cause of wildfires entails a rapid transition away from fossil fuels to mitigate climate change impacts that contribute to the increased risk of wildfires turning into community disasters.

In summary, the U.S. government’s substantial investment in managing wildfires is a significant step forward. To make the most impact, strategic efforts should target areas where both community protection and carbon storage can be simultaneously achieved. This approach will help address the escalating wildfire crisis while mitigating the broader effects of climate change.

Source: The Conversation

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