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Model analysis of post-fire management and potential reburn fire behavior

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Recent trends in wildfire area burned have been characterized by large patches with high densities of standing dead trees, well outside of historical range of variability in many areas and presenting forest managers with difficult decisions regarding post-fire management. Post-fire tree harvesting, commonly called salvage logging, is a controversial management tactic that is often undertaken to recoup economic loss and, more recently, also to reduce future fuel hazard, especially when coupled with surface fuel reduction. It is unclear, however, whether the reductions in future fuels translate to meaningful changes to reburn fire behavior, particularly in the context of potentially detrimental effects of harvest on other ecosystem services. We used observed post-fire snag structure in four high severity burn scars located in the Western United States that had variable post-fire snag basal area (13.3–63.9 mg ha−2) to initialize a simulation study of future coarse and fine woody fuel hazard and associated reburn fire behavior and effects. We compared untreated controls to intensive and intermediate intensity harvest treatments, both simulated and actual. All treatments showed some number of years of extreme fire behavior during which flame lengths exceeded thresholds associated with wildfire resistance to control, implying that future fuel reductions achieved by the treatments did not translate to conditions conducive for effective reburn fire management. Harvested stands had less severe soil fire effects (soil heating and smoldering duration) than untreated controls, explained by lower predicted peak coarse woody fuels (CWD) in the harvested stands. At higher pre-treatment snag basal area, harvested stands better maintained CWD within the range desired to maintain ecosystem functions such as nutrient cycling and wildlife habitat. These simulation results indicate that, even with reduced fuel hazard, salvage treatments may still be associated with severe fire behavior for some time after wildfire, but achieved reductions in coarse woody fuels may also reduce some soil fire effects. Tradeoffs in the effects of post-fire harvest must be considered carefully in the context of forest regeneration, local conditions that govern salvage methods, snag fall and decomposition, and associated potential reburn fire effects.

Maureen C. Kennedy, Morris C. Johnson, Sarah C. Harrison

Maureen C. Kennedy, Morris C. Johnson, Sarah C. Harrison. Model analysis of post-fire management and potential reburn fire behavior. Journal of Environmental Management. Volume 351, 2024. 119664. ISSN 0301-4797.

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