Severe fire weather and intensive forest management increase fire severity in a multi-ownership landscape

TitleSevere fire weather and intensive forest management increase fire severity in a multi-ownership landscape
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsZald, HSJ
Secondary AuthorsDunn, CJ
JournalEcological Applications
VolumeOnline early
Start Page1
KeywordsFire severity, forest management, Landsat, multi-owner landscape, technical reports and journal articles

Many studies have examined how fuels, topography, climate, and fire weather influence fire severity. Less is known about how different forest management practices influence fire severity in multi‐owner landscapes, despite costly and controversial suppression of wildfires that do not acknowledge ownership boundaries. In 2013, the Douglas Complex burned over 19,000 ha of Oregon & California Railroad (O&C) lands in Southwestern Oregon, USA. O&C lands are composed of a checkerboard of private industrial and federal forestland (Bureau of Land Management, BLM) with contrasting management objectives, providing a unique experimental landscape to understand how different management practices influence wildfire severity. Leveraging Landsat based estimates of fire severity (Relative differenced Normalized Burn Ratio, RdNBR) and geospatial data on fire progression, weather, topography, pre‐fire forest conditions, and land ownership, we asked (1) what is the relative importance of different variables driving fire severity, and (2) is intensive plantation forestry associated with higher fire severity? Using Random Forest ensemble machine learning, we found daily fire weather was the most important predictor of fire severity, followed by stand age and ownership, followed by topographic features. Estimates of pre‐fire forest biomass were not an important predictor of fire severity. Adjusting for all other predictor variables in a general least squares model incorporating spatial autocorrelation, mean predicted RdNBR was higher on private industrial forests (RdNBR 521.85 ± 18.67 [mean ± SE]) vs. BLM forests (398.87 ± 18.23) with a much greater proportion of older forests. Our findings suggest intensive plantation forestry characterized by young forests and spatially homogenized fuels, rather than pre‐fire biomass, were significant drivers of wildfire severity. This has implications for perceptions of wildfire risk, shared fire management responsibilities, and developing fire resilience for multiple objectives in multi‐owner landscapes.