Another paper: Forests are increasingly struggling to recover from wildfires

This is from an article in The Conversation yesterday, March 6: “The West’s iconic forests are increasingly struggling to recover from wildfires – altering how fires burn could boost their chances.”

Wildfires and severe drought are killing trees at an alarming rate across the West, and forests are struggling to recover as the planet warms. However, new research shows there are ways to improve forests’ chances of recovery – by altering how wildfires burn.

In a new study, we teamed up with over 50 other fire ecologists to examine how forests have recovered – or haven’t – in over 10,000 locations after 334 wildfires.

Together, these sites offer an unprecedented look at how forests respond to wildfires and global warming.

Our results are sobering. We found that conifer tree seedlings, such as Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine, are increasingly stressed by high temperatures and dry conditions in sites recovering from wildfires. In some sites, our team didn’t find any seedlings at all. That’s worrying, because whether forests recover after a wildfire depends in large part on whether new seedlings can establish themselves and grow.

However, our team also found that if wildfires burn less intensely, forests will have a better shot at regrowing. Our study, published March 6, 2023, highlights how proactive efforts that modify how wildfires burn can help buffer seedlings from some of the biggest stressors of global warming.

The PNAS paper is open-access:

“Reduced fire severity offers near-term buffer to climate-driven declines in conifer resilience across the western United States”

7 thoughts on “Another paper: Forests are increasingly struggling to recover from wildfires”

  1. Planting tall seed grown nursery trees, with a fiber decomposable 18” x 18” seed mat and attendant under mat water conservation and soil cooling qualities. 70/80 noon air temps on May-August clear day produce +100 degree f temps ground level and lower the further from ground level. Government and private land owners afforestation has grown forests on Indian fire maintained South slope “grassy…. balds” found by the first European occupiers. They used it for livestock grazing. That Land was early edible plants, berries, roots and seeds for spring and early summer food.
    Finite non arable land was made suitable for created timberlands. The methods and documented success certainly can be used to establish trees on fire barren hot seasonal slopes and micro sites. Only effort and will to plant are missing. Trees do lower noontime ambient air temps 5 degrees f. Now “affordable” (LOL) siting multiple unit housing on former single family zoned residential lots has resulted in gross loss of 50 or more year old urban trees. Every added square foot of roof and pavement comes at the expense of ur existing suburban former tree canopy cover. Add energy used to run A/C putting hot air outside the apartment complex, and the result is self explanatory. No long term vision comes from 2-4and 6 year election cycles. Fact of life.

    • China has proven better than anywhere else that you can grow trees almost anywhere if you have enough funding. In their case it’s been to prevent three separate deserts from growing into one.

      But there’s not enough money in the world to scale up even the biggest tree planting efforts to adequately address the massive decline in natural forest regeneration from the one-two punch of unsustainable liquidation logging and global warming.

      This is a problem for future generations… Currently today, we’re just here to cut as many trees as fast as we can no matter how severe the long term consequences cause money for ourselves right now is more important than ensuring future generations have a planet they can still live on.

      • Deane,

        Who are you talking about specifically in terms of “we”? Do you think forests that are certified (which seem to be a great many in North America) as sustainable “cut as many trees as fast as we can”? Because that’s not my experience of such forests.

  2. Looks like they left all the stuff out that explains why industrial forestry is to blame, not just by logging off most all of the primary forest that evolved to survived for centuries amid periodic wildfire burn patterns, but they also left out post fire management and how salvage logging eliminates all the large woody debris that survived the fire that when left standing precipitates soil building biomass in each gust of wind, as well as how downed logs can become fertile seed beds of the next forest, which takes time…

    What’s more they left out the fact that we had a mini-ice age from 800 to 1850 and the North American forest landscapes that thrived during that time grew under near perfect growing conditions without losing any biomass to logging and it’s quite the opposite of that now. For 382 millions years trees evolved to dominate the continents, yet they never had to adapt to or evolve to survive catastrophic clearcutting of nearly all primary forests on a global scale.

    As always, the baseline for forest regeneration isn’t defined in a honest way in this paper and accountability for previous logging activities as well as post wildfire salvage logging activities is considered taboo and gets no documentation or correlation to forest regeneration during a time when carbon in the atmosphere has never before shot up faster in natural history and climate instability makes it far less likely that forests will be able to recover any time soon.

  3. Wow! This is a fascinating look at how different scientific disciplines look at the same issue.

    “Despite the pronounced impact of climate change, the stark contrast in the projections of conifer recruitment probability from the low- and high-severity scenarios emphasize how management actions taken to reduce fire severity can significantly shape postfire vegetation trajectories. Identifying whether, when, and where management intervention is appropriate to resist or direct trajectories of change in these forests will become more critical as wildfire affects more of the landscape each year.”

    In other words, if you burn up all the trees that might produce seed nearby, trees will have trouble regenerating on their own. I think we knew that; at least the tree regeneration scientific community did. To avoid previous ecosystem conversion we would… plant trees. Today that would be called “climate adaptation”. It is interesting to look at papers and ask the question “have the authors considered what adaptation responses might occur?” Often that requires asking a different discipline. But as disciplines have changed through time, maybe none of those scientists are available.

    Now, whether planted trees will successfully grow due to climate change is a question. But it is unlikely to be a fire ecology question. Geneticists and reforestation experts can do the best we can, but only time will tell.

  4. In the Sierra Nevada, there are also major soils damages after these intense wildfires. There is substantial decomposed granite in those forest soils, and when all the humus is incinerated, the soils have trouble supporting newly-germinated plants, throughout the hot and dry summers. The water-holding capacity of those burned soils will be impacted, until enough humus can be accumulated and incorporated into the existing soils. (Of course, re-burns will also disrupt that process)

    Then there is also the potential for true fir to seed into burned areas, disrupting the classic view of “natural succession”. That situation is happening more often, these days, as well, due to the population increases of true fir, in our modern-day Sierra Nevada forests.

    Until we accept that human-caused wildfires are currently destroying forests, we’ll have to suffer the same impacts. “Hopes and prayers” for ‘natural forests’ are a poor excuse for stewardship of forests which will never be the same. Apparently, this is just what us humans do, for better or for worse.

    ‘Whatever Happens’ is completely our fault. For some of us, we can see the reality of this lost cause. No matter what we do, the fires will keep coming.


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