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High-severity burned area and proportion exceed historic conditions in Sierra Nevada, California, and adjacent ranges

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Although fire is a fundamental ecological process in western North American forests, climate warming and accumulating forest fuels due to fire suppression have led to wildfires that burn at high severity across larger fractions of their footprint than were historically typical. These trends have spiked upwards in recent years and are particularly pronounced in the Sierra Nevada–Southern Cascades ecoregion of California, USA, and neighboring states. We assessed annual area burned (AAB) and percentage of area burned at high and low-to-moderate severity for seven major forest types in this region from 1984 to 2020. We compared values for this period against estimates for the pre-Euro-American settlement (EAS) period prior to 1850 and against a previous study of trends from 1984 to 2009. Our results show that the total average AAB remained below pre-EAS levels, but that gap is decreasing (i.e., ~14% of pre-EAS for 1984–2009, but 39% for 2010–2020 [including ~150% in 2020]). Although the average AAB has remained low compared with pre-EAS, both the average annual area burned at high severity (AAHS) and the percentage of wildfire area burned at high severity have increased rapidly. The percentage of area burned at high severity, which was already above pre-EAS average for the 1984–2009 period, has continued to rise for five of seven forest types. Notably, between 2010 and 2020, the average AAHS exceeded the pre-EAS average for the first time on record. By contrast, the percentage of area that burned at low-to-moderate severity decreased, particularly in the lower elevation oak and mixed conifer forest types. These findings underline how forests historically adapted to frequent low-to-moderate severity fire are being reshaped by novel proportions and extents of high-severity burning. The shift toward a high-severity-dominated fire regime is associated with ecological disruptions, including changes in forest structure, species composition, carbon storage, wildlife habitat, ecosystem services, and resilience. Our results underscore the importance of finding a better balance between the current management focus on fire suppression and one that puts greater emphasis on proactive fuel reduction and increased forest resilience to climate change and ecological disturbance.

J.N. Williams; H.D. Safford; N. Enstice; Z.L. Steel; A.K. Paulson

Williams JN, Safford HD, Enstice N, Steel ZL, Paulson AK. High-severity burned area and proportion exceed historic conditions in Sierra Nevada, California, and adjacent ranges. Ecosphere. 2023 ;14(1).