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Prescribed fire placement matters more than increasing frequency and extent in a simulated Pacific Northwest landscape

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Prescribed fire has been increasingly promoted to reduce wildfire risk and restore fire-adapted ecosystems. Yet, the complexities of forest ecosystem dynamics in response to disturbances, climate change, and drought stress, combined with myriad social and policy barriers, have inhibited widespread implementation. Using the forest succession model LANDIS-II, we investigated the likely impacts of increasing prescribed fire frequency and extent on wildfire severity and forest carbon storage at local and landscape scales. Specifically, we ask how much prescribed fire is required to maintain carbon storage and reduce the severity and extent of wildfires under divergent climate change scenarios? We simulated four prescribed fire scenarios (no prescribed fire, business-as-usual, moderate increase, and large increase) in the Siskiyou Mountains of northwest California and southwest Oregon. At the local site scale, prescribed fires lowered the severity of projected wildfires and maintained approximately the same level of ecosystem carbon storage when reapplied at a ~15-year return interval for 50-year simulations. Increased frequency and extent of prescribed fire decreased the likelihood of aboveground carbon combustion during wildfire events. However, at the landscape scale, prescribed fire did not decrease the projected severity and extent of wildfire, even when large increases (up to 10× the current levels) of prescribed fire were simulated. Prescribed fire was most effective at reducing wildfire severity under a climate change scenario with increased temperature and precipitation and on sites with north-facing aspects and slopes greater than 30°. Our findings suggest that placement matters more than frequency and extent to estimate the effects of prescribed fire, and that prescribed fire alone would not be sufficient to reduce the risk of wildfire and promote carbon sequestration at regional scales in the Siskiyou Mountains. To improve feasibility, we propose targeting areas of high concern or value to decrease the risk of high-severity fire and contribute to meeting climate mitigation and adaptation goals. Our results support strategic and targeted landscape prioritization of fire treatments to reduce wildfire severity and increase the pace and scale of forest restoration in areas of social and ecological importance, highlighting the challenges of using prescribed fire to lower wildfire risk.

Alison L. Deak, Melissa S. Lucash, Michael R. Coughlan, Shelby Weiss, Lucas C. R. Silva

Deak, Alison L., Melissa S. Lucash, Michael R. Coughlan, Shelby Weiss, and Lucas C. R. Silva. 2024. “ Prescribed Fire Placement Matters More than Increasing Frequency and Extent in a Simulated Pacific Northwest Landscape.” Ecosphere 15(4): e4827.

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