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A Statement of Common Ground Regarding the Role of Wildfire in Forested Landscapes of the Western United States

Author(s): Max A. Moritz, Christopher Topik, Craig D. Allen, Paul F. Hessburg, Penelope Morgan, Dennis C. Odion, Thomas T. Veblen, Ian M. McCullough
Year Published: 2018

For millennia, wildfires have markedly influenced forests and non-forested landscapes of the western United States (US), and they are increasingly seen as having substantial impacts on society and nature. There is growing concern over what kinds and amounts of fire will achieve desirable outcomes and limit harmful effects on people and nature. Moreover, the increasing complexity surrounding cost and management of wildfires suggests that science should play a more prominent role in informing decisions about the need for fire in nature, and the need for society to adapt to the inevitable occurrence of different kinds and amounts of fire and smoke.

Scientists widely view the natural wildfire regime as essential to western US forest ecosystem functioning. However, debates continue over how much low-, moderate-, and high-severity fire is “natural” or desirable in these forests. Ongoing disagreement centers on the characteristics and importance of historical proportions and patch size distributions of low-, moderate-, and high-severity fires of dry, moist, and cold forests, and on the ecological consequences of changing fire-patch patterns and relative abundances. Scientists also debate the relative importance of climate and extreme weather versus fuel as drivers of high-severity fire, as well as the effectiveness and value of fuel treatments for reducing risks of undesired fire effects.

Climate research shows that we should expect shifting future climates in all ecoregions. These expected changes make it difficult for scientists, land managers, and decision-makers to know the degree to which future forest management should be informed by historical conditions. There also is disagreement about how to make western forests more resilient to future disruptions in both climatic and fire regimes. To complicate matters, areas of scientific agreement -- the “common ground” shared by those in the research community -- are poorly articulated. Thus, the focus of the Fire Research Consensus (FRC) project has been to identify common ground among scientists, and provide a summary that can inform management. Land and fire managers are one audience for this report, as are stakeholders and the interested public.

Our analysis, which results from extensive scientific literature reviews and questionnaires sent to western fire scientists and land managers, is summarized in nine key topics: A. Fire history and fire ecology vary with geography. B. Human impacts and management history vary with geography. C. Fire is a keystone process, which occurs in almost all western US forest types. D. Knowledge of historical range of variability (HRV) is useful but does not dictate land management goals. E. Forest structure, composition, and fuels have changed, affecting burn severity and fire extent. F. Climate and fuels both influence current fire sizes and their severities. G. The role of changing climatic conditions is increasingly important. H. Multiple fire ecology and fire history research approaches can be useful for characterizing fire regimes. I. Many existing fire management tools and strategies can be useful moving forward.

We found much common ground that will be useful to scientists, managers, citizens, and policy decision-makers. For example, there is wide agreement among scientists that fire is one of the most essential influences on western forests and that more fire is needed on most landscapes, but not all wildfire behavior or extent will do. Fires can produce more positive benefits and fewer negative impacts when they burn with an ecologically appropriate mix and pattern of low, moderate, and high severity. Managers will need assistance and funding to create landscape conditions that favor more desirable fire behavior at broad spatial scales. Note that much societal impact from western wildfires occurs in non-forested landscapes that are not covered in this report, where findings would differ from those reported here for forested landscapes. We summarize additional key points in this paper.

Citation: Moritz, M.A., C. Topik, C.D. Allen, P.F. Hessburg, P. Morgan, D.C. Odion, T.T. Veblen, and I.M. McCullough. 2018. A Statement of Common Ground Regarding the Role of Wildfire in Forested Landscapes of the Western United States. Fire Research Consensus Working Group Final Report, 55 p.
Topic(s): Fire Behavior
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Technical Report or White Paper
NRFSN number: 18361
Record updated: Nov 9, 2018