Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent-fire forests of the western United States?

A new study recently published in ECOSPHERE, an open access journal, found “found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel loading.”

Here’s the Abstract, and again the full study can be viewed here.

ABSTRACT:

There is a widespread view among land managers and others that the protected status of many forestlands in the western United States corresponds with higher fire severity levels due to historical restrictions on logging that contribute to greater amounts of biomass and fuel loading in less intensively managed areas, particularly after decades of fire suppression. This view has led to recent proposals—both administrative and legislative—to reduce or eliminate forest protections and increase some forms of logging based on the belief that restrictions on active management have increased fire severity. We investigated the relationship between protected status and fire severity using the Random Forests algorithm applied to 1500 fires affecting 9.5 million hectares between 1984 and 2014 in pine (Pinus ponderosa, Pinus jeffreyi) and mixed-conifer forests of western United States, accounting for key topographic and climate variables. We found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel loading. Our results suggest a need to reconsider current overly simplistic assumptions about the relationship between forest protection and fire severity in fire management and policy.

9 Comments

    • If fire is a natural process in forest ecosystems, and if species evolved under the influence of a variety of disturbances, including wildfire, what makes wildfire “destructive?”

      • Over 90% of all wildfires are man-caused. When those fires burn in overstocked and unhealthy stands (from decades of fire suppression), you get unhealthy fire. We’ve gone over this so many times. There are some realities that you MUST accept, bud! (We must all accept them and move on from there!)

      • 2ndOutLaw

        So you aren’t too concerned about “preserving” the existing forests in their present state?

        So you would be ok with properly planned and executed thinnings, clearcuts and other establishment harvests which mimic fires and other disturbances with less destructive impact?

        So you’re not really concerned about the endangered species that depend on the existing forests that wildfire destroys?

        So you aren’t too concerned about the loss of human life, health, property and infrastructure that comes from wildfires?

        What about all of the erosion caused by wildfire? I guess that you must think that those enviros that are worried about aquatic species are wackos?

        Sorry, but the contradictions wear me out.

  1. The way I look at these broad correlational studies is to take a real life area near me and ask two questions-(1) Is this true where I live/or where I worked? And (2) if it’s not true, what specific mechanism do the authors propose for how this happens? Actually, 2 is always a good question. Because usually in science, you would need to have a hypothesis. You test this hypothesis for why differences exist.You would also test other hypotheses. But first you have to find a difference to explain.

    So for me, I took central Oregon, where I spent a lot of work time on the ground. Our protected areas were “protected” (wilderness) because they were high, with poor growing conditions, so no roads had gotten into them. Even in Colorado, this is often the case. Higher, wetter, smaller trees. The authors say they corrected for that, but given their previous work (honestly) I would have a low level of trust for models that are complicated enough to take into account vegetation and weather combos across the western US.

    ” We found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel loading.” Who identified them as “having higher levels of biomass” I wonder…??? I think there might be places where that’s the case, say the SW where it’s drier at lower elevations so there’s more biomass, but not everywhere in the west. And if it varies across the west, does taking the average make any sense?

  2. In Southwestern Oregon it seems that since the northwest forest plan we have had more large catastrophic fires. All types of forest land have been burned, but especially those under the management of the forest service. I think the correlation could be made between fire severity and fire fighting philosophy and procedure. There also seems to be a correlation between active management, less fire, and no management, more fires.
    I find it hard to understand people who profess to care about the forest also promote its destruction by fire.

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