Are High-Severity Fires Burning at Much Higher Rates Recently than Historically in Dry-Forest Landscapes of the Western USA?

PLoS ONE (Sept. 9, 2015: DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0136147) / by William L. Baker
http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0136147

Dry forests at low elevations in temperate-zone mountains are commonly hypothesized to be at risk of exceptional rates of severe fire from climatic change and land-use effects. Their setting is fire-prone, they have been altered by land-uses, and fire severity may be increasing. However, where fires were excluded, increased fire could also be hypothesized as restorative of historical fire. These competing hypotheses are not well tested, as reference data prior to widespread land-use expansion were insufficient. Moreover, fire-climate projections were lacking for these forests. Here, I used new reference data and records of high-severity fire from 1984–2012 across all dry forests (25.5 million ha) of the western USA to test these hypotheses. I also approximated projected effects of climatic change on high-severity fire in dry forests by applying existing projections. This analysis showed the rate of recent high-severity fire in dry forests is within the range of historical rates, or is too low, overall across dry forests and individually in 42 of 43 analysis regions. Significant upward trends were lacking overall from 1984–2012 for area burned and fraction burned at high severity. Upward trends in area burned at high severity were found in only 4 of 43 analysis regions. Projections for A.D. 2046–2065 showed high-severity fire would generally be still operating at, or have been restored to historical rates, although high projections suggest high-severity fire rotations that are too short could ensue in 6 of 43 regions. Programs to generally reduce fire severity in dry forests are not supported and have significant adverse ecological impacts, including reducing habitat for native species dependent on early-successional burned patches and decreasing landscape heterogeneity that confers resilience to climatic change. Some adverse ecological effects of high-severity fires are concerns. Managers and communities can improve our ability to live with high-severity fire in dry forests.

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