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How will climate change affect wildland fire severity in the western US?

Author(s): Sean A. Parks, Carol Miller, John T. Abatzoglou, Lisa M. Holsinger, Marc-Andre Parisien, Solomon Z. Dobrowski
Year Published: 2016

Fire regime characteristics in North America are expected to change over the next several decades as a result of anthropogenic climate change. Although some fire regime characteristics (e.g., area burned and fire season length) are relatively well-studied in the context of a changing climate, fire severity has received less attention. In this study, we used observed data from 1984 to 2012 for the western United States (US) to build a statistical model of fire severity as a function of climate. We then applied this model to several (n = 20) climate change projections representing mid-century (2040–2069) conditions under the RCP 8.5 scenario. Model predictions suggest widespread reduction in fire severity for large portions of the western US. However, our model implicitly incorporates climate-induced changes in vegetation type, fuel load, and fire frequency. As such, our predictions are best interpreted as a potential reduction in fire severity, a potential that may not be realized due human-induced disequilibrium between plant communities and climate. Consequently, to realize the reductions in fire severity predicted in this study, land managers in the western US could facilitate the transition of plant communities towards a state of equilibrium with the emerging climate through means such as active restoration treatments (e.g., mechanical thinning and prescribed fire) and passive restoration strategies like managed natural fire (under suitable weather conditions). Resisting changes in vegetation composition and fuel load via activities such as aggressive fire suppression will amplify disequilibrium conditions and will likely result in increased fire severity in future decades because fuel loads will increase as the climate warms and fire danger becomes more extreme. The results of our study provide insights to the pros and cons of resisting or facilitating change in vegetation composition and fuel load in the context of a changing climate.

Citation: Parks, S.A.; Miller, C.; Abatzoglou, J.T.; Holsinger, L.M.; Parisien, M.; Dobrowski, S.Z. 2016. How will climate change affect wildland fire severity in the western US? Environmental Research Letters. 11(3): 1-10.
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - First Order, Fire Intensity / Burn Severity, Fire & Climate, Fire Regime
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 13983
Record updated: May 10, 2018