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Too hot, too cold, or just right: Can wildfire restore dry forests of the interior Pacific Northwest?

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As contemporary wildfire activity intensifies across the western United States, there is increasing recognition that a variety of forest management activities are necessary to restore ecosystem function and reduce wildfire hazard in dry forests. However, the pace and scale of current, active forest management is insufficient to address restoration needs. Managed wildfire and landscape-scale prescribed burns hold potential to achieve broad-scale goals but may not achieve desired outcomes where fire severity is too high or too low. To explore the potential for fire alone to restore dry forests, we developed a novel method to predict the range of fire severities most likely to restore historical forest basal area, density, and species composition in forests across eastern Oregon. First, we developed probabilistic tree mortality models for 24 species based on tree characteristics and remotely sensed fire severity from burned field plots. We applied these estimates to unburned stands in four national forests to predict post-fire conditions using multi-scale modeling in a Monte Carlo framework. We compared these results to historical reconstructions to identify fire severities with the highest restoration potential. Generally, we found basal area and density targets could be achieved by a relatively narrow range of moderate-severity fire (roughly 365–560 RdNBR). However, single fire events did not restore species composition in forests that were historically maintained by frequent, low-severity fire. Restorative fire severity ranges for stand basal area and density were strikingly similar for ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and dry mixed-conifer forests across a broad geographic range, in part due to relatively high fire tolerance of large grand (Abies grandis) and white fir (Abies concolor). Our results suggest historical forest conditions created by recurrent fire are not readily restored by single fires and landscapes have likely passed thresholds that preclude the effectiveness of managed wildfire alone as a restoration tool.
S.M. Greenler; C.J. Dunn; J.D. Johnston; M.J. Reilly; A.G. Merschel; K. Hagmann; J.D. Bailey
Greenler SM, Dunn CJ, Johnston JD, Reilly MJ, Merschel AG, R. Hagmann K, Bailey JD. Too hot, too cold, or just right: Can wildfire restore dry forests of the interior Pacific Northwest?. Plos One. 2023 ;18(2).