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Wildfire and fuel treatment effects on forest carbon dynamics in the western United States

Author(s): Joseph C. Restaino, David L. Peterson
Year Published: 2013

Sequestration of carbon (C) in forests has the potential to mitigate the effects of climate change by offsetting future emissions of greenhouse gases. However, in dry temperate forests, wildfire is a natural disturbance agent with the potential to release large fluxes of C into the atmosphere. Climate-driven increases in wildfire extent and severity are expected to increase the risks of reversal to C stores and affect the potential of dry forests to sequester C. In the western United States, fuel treatments that successfully reduce surface fuels in dry forests can mitigate the spread and severity of wildfire, while reducing both tree mortality and emissions from wildfire. However, heterogeneous burn environments, site-specific variability in post-fire ecosystem response, and uncertainty in future fire frequency and extent complicate assessments of long-term (decades to centuries) C dynamics across large landscapes. Results of studies on the effects of fuel treatments and wildfires on long-term C retention across large landscapes are limited and equivocal. Stand-scale studies, empirical and modeled, describe a wide range of total treatment costs (12-116 Mg C ha-1) and reductions in wildfire emissions between treated and untreated stands (1-40 Mg C ha-1). Conclusions suggest the direction (source, sink) and magnitude of net C effects from fuel treatments are similarly variable (-33 Mg C ha-1 to +3 Mg C ha-1). Studies at large spatial and temporal scales suggest that there is a low likelihood of high-severity wildfire events interacting with treated forests, negating any expected C benefit from fuels reduction. The frequency, extent, and severity of wildfire are expected to increase as a result of changing climate, and additional information on C response to management and disturbance scenarios is needed improve the accuracy and usefulness of assessments of fuel treatment and wildfire effects on C dynamics.

Citation: Restaino, Joseph C.; Peterson, David L. 2013. Wildfire and fuel treatment effects on forest carbon dynamics in the western United States. Forest Ecology and Management. 303: 46-60.
Topic(s): Fire & Climate, Carbon Sequestration, Fuels, Fuel Treatments & Effects, Mechanical treatments, Prescribed Fire-use treatments
Ecosystem(s): Montane dry mixed-conifer forest, Ponderosa pine woodland/savanna
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 11981
FRAMES RCS number: 14725
Record updated: May 24, 2018