Climate Change and Fire Management Implications


I realized that many readers might be interested in this research synthesis and not be following comments (I found this in response to a comment by John Persell) so here it is.

I think folks are pretty aware of current climate thinking and its impacts on fire. There is even a handy synthesis for managers here on the Wildland Fire and Climate Change part of the Climate Change Resource Center. Like many things about climate change, what you should do is generally sort of common-sensical to practitioners (although we might disagree about details and priorities)

When I worked in Climate Change in the Forest Service, I used to say if it’s not in CCRC, you probably don’t need to know.

Options for Management

In some western dry forests, particularly those affected by 20th-century fire exclusion, thinning and surface fuel treatment (including prescribed burning) can reduce fire severity and fire hazard [36], although maintenance treatments may be required every 20 to 40 years. Strategic placement of treatments can greatly increase the effective area treated [37]. In unmanaged forests, especially in areas in which fire suppression is difficult, expensive, or counterproductive to resource objectives, managers can take advantage of the self-limiting nature of wildfire. Fire spread rates and severity are reduced when a fire reaches a recently burned area [38].

Fuel treatments will be challenging to implement at spatial scales large enough to have much impact, especially if wildfire increases greatly in the future, but can enhance resilience on specific landscapes with high resource, economic, or political values (e.g., the wildland-urban interface). In the Southeast, undergrowth may grow even faster in warmer temperatures. Management practices may need to respond to an increase in available fuels, while anticipating a shortening of the prescribed burning “season”, particularly in Florida [39].

Some general guidelines for adaptation [40,41,42]

Increase landscape diversity — increase large-scale resilience, size of management units, and connectivity.
Maintain biological diversity — experiment with species and genotype mixes, and identify species, populations, and communities that are sensitive to increased fire and develop conservation plans for them.
Plan for post-disturbance management — treat fire and other ecological disturbances as normal processes and incorporate fire management into planning.
Maintain and improve the resilience of watersheds and aquatic ecosystems by implementing practices that protect, maintain, and restore watershed processes and services.
Implement early detection and rapid response — monitor post-fire conditions, and eliminate or control exotic species early on.
Manage for realistic outcomes — identify key thresholds and prioritize projects with a high probability of success; abandon hopeless causes; consider even alternatives that might be undesirable in an unchanging climate.
Incorporate climate change into restoration — avoid trying to replicate historical conditions, but continue to learn lessons from historical variation.
Develop regulations and policies that take climate change into account — raise awareness with stakeholders, and work with local stakeholders from the onset of projects.
Anticipate big surprises — expect mega droughts, larger fires, species extirpations, loss of resilience and system collapses, and incorporate these events in planning.

6 thoughts on “Climate Change and Fire Management Implications”

  1. “Fire spread rates and severity are reduced when a fire reaches a recently burned area [38].” Oddly enough, this concept works better in theory than in real life. Just yesterday, the Rim Fire, near Yosemite, has bumped into the footprint of the complex of 200,000 acres that burned in 1987, as well as another one that happened in the late 90’s. Here is a view of the southern part of this fire that grew 6000 acres yesterday.,-120.018768&spn=0.028983,0.066047&t=h&z=15

    The area south of Highway 120 was burned in 1987. Currently, that same area has re-burned. North of the highway was burned later, and is quite brushy, not being reforested.

    Here is a view of the area around the Groveland Ranger District office, which was burned over in the 1987 blaze.,-120.088205&spn=0.014492,0.033023&t=h&z=16

    Just south of the office, the forest was incinerated, and now has 25 years of plantation growth. We’ll see where the new fire perimeter is on They are currently holding the fire on the highway in this view but, it has jumped the highway for a long stretch east of here. In this view, the 1987 fire jumped north of the highway, and it has now re-burned plantations and brush, in that area.

    Re-burns are a significant issue, and many opponents gloss over those facts. This year, the drought has continued, and forests are as dry as they have ever been, in recent history. I predict that this Rim Fire will continue to be a problem for weeks to come, due to the extreme terrain of the Tuolumne River canyon. Post-fire salvage must play an important role in preparing the land for future inevitable wildfires. After that, plantations must be maintained with a goal of making them more fire resistant. In this case, large blocks of untreated land were intermeshed within the plantations, for wildlife that uses them. Fuelbreaks are an investment in the land, and must be maintained, in order to function.

    Even though firefighters have worked hard, the dangerous terrain prevented them from entering the canyon, early in the fire. They haven’t been able to attack the northern part of the fire perimeter, being remote and very steep. This just underscores the need for a cohesive system of fuelbreaks and thinned stands that resist crown fires. And, finally, this fire shows that “free range wildfires” are a terrible idea.

    • I agree, Larry. It is more complicated than that. I have seen jackstrawed lodgepole from a previous fire (somewhere near Hell’s Canyon) where the lodgepole regen was 5 or so feet tall, the reburn went through the dry jackstrawed lodgepole and turned the regen to crispy critters, and no more moms and dads very close to provide more seed. It might still be in some cones that didn’t release in the first fire. Would be interesting to go back and see what’s happening now.

      It’s not difficult to think of a mosaic including fuelbreaks and untreated areas designed that the untreated areas and fuelbreaks are contiguous and provide corridors for wildlife and useful fuelbreaks.

      He, aren’t they trying this in California?

      • The “clumps and gaps” strategy we have been using isn’t really about fire resilience. The big project I worked on last year didn’t install any fuelbreaks, concentrating more on thinning, overall, instead. Also, there seems to be more emphasis on treating highway corridors, addressing the reality that human ignitions are more dangerous than lightning strikes. Many highways do follow “strategic” ridgetops, though.

        • Seems like roads might generally make good can get equipment in, etc. And remove extra fuels with a minimum of additional roads..

  2. Larry and Sharon, You are trying confusing anecdotes with evidence. Your arguments would be stronger if supported by evidence from rigorous scientific methods.


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