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Contemporary wildfires are more severe compared to the historical reference period in western US dry conifer forests

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Dry conifer forests in the western US historically experienced frequent fire prior to European American colonization. Mean fire return interval ranged from about 5–35 years, with the majority of fires burning at low-to-moderate severity. The arrival of European Americans initiated notable reductions in fire frequency through the cessation of Indigenous burning, livestock grazing, and fire suppression. These activities effectively excluded fire from most dry conifer forests, thereby allowing live and dead fuels to accumulate. There are concerns that this fuel accumulation is causing contemporary fires (since 1985) to burn more severely compared to pre-colonization time periods, thereby increasing potential for enduring fire-catalyzed conversions to non-forest. Here, we used satellite-derived fire severity data to characterize the prevalence of contemporary (1985–2020) stand-replacing fire in dry conifer forests within four broad ecoregions for all fires, non-wilderness fires, wilderness fires, and prescribed fires. Our results indicate, that as a proportion of area burned, contemporary fires experienced 2.9 to 13.6 times more stand-replacing fire (depending on the ecoregion) compared to the pre-colonization period. Non-wilderness areas exhibit somewhat higher prevalence of stand-replacing fire, relative to the historical fire regime, than wilderness areas (where logging is prohibited). The relatively small difference between non-wilderness and wilderness suggests that fuel accumulation resulting from fire exclusion has played a larger role than historical logging activities on the prevalence of contemporary stand-replacing fire. Prescribed fires do not exhibit a higher prevalence of stand-replacing fire compared to the historical fire regime. We conducted a parallel analysis in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, USA, is it is arguably the best example of an unrestrained fire regime (many fires are not suppressed) in western US dry conifer forests. The Gila Wilderness proportionally experienced only 1.8 times more stand-replacing fire compared to the historical reference period; in contrast, the southwest ecoregion experienced 5.9 times more stand-replacing fire. Fire will inevitably burn a given forest no matter how much money and personnel we commit to fire prevention and suppression, and because of the high prevalence of stand-replacing fire, the long-term persistence of dry conifer forests is jeopardized. Unless forest managers are provided the social license and enabling conditions to substantially accelerate efforts to restore conditions resistant to stand-replacing fire, we anticipate that the extent of dry conifer forests will continue to erode as fire-catalyzed conversions increasingly unfold across the western US.

S.A. Parks; L.M. Holsinger; K. Blankenship; G.K. Dillon; S.A. Goeking; R. Swaty

Parks SA, Holsinger LM, Blankenship K, Dillon GK, Goeking SA, Swaty R. Contemporary wildfires are more severe compared to the historical reference period in western US dry conifer forests. Forest Ecology and Management. 2023 ;544.