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Fire and climate change: a comment

Author(s): Richard L. Hutto
Year Published: 2021

Stephens et al. (2020) do an excellent job of encouraging us to sharpen our focus on the ecological consequences of forest and fire management activities, but at the same time they did not emphasize that those consequences differ substantially among forest types. Even though Stephens et al. clearly state that their comments apply only to “seasonally dry” forest types, readers may not appreciate that such forests comprise a minority of US western forest lands. Without proper qualification, I fear that their recommended restoration strategies, which make sense for seasonally dry, low‐elevation ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forests, will be applied to mixed‐conifer forests, for which a very different management approach informed by a very different ecology is required.

It is unclear which forests belong in a forest type category characterized by predominantly low‐severity understory fires in the historical or evolutionary past, but our own estimate (Hutto et al. 2016), which was based on existing vegetation types in the LANDFIRE database (https://landf​ire.gov), suggests that as little as 10–15% of all western conifer forest types fall within such a category; a similar percentage was estimated in recent fire reconstructions in Colorado (Baker 2020). Therefore, most conifer forests in the western US consist of mixed‐species stands that are born of and maintained by mixed‐ to high‐severity fires, which burn during years when humidity, temperature, and wind conditions (not fuel loads) dictate fire behavior. Even dry, low‐elevation ponderosa pine forests are typified by an unspecified amount of severe fire, which always produces mixed‐severity effects (Arno and Allison‐Bunnell 2002; Baker 2018, 2020), and widespread crown‐fire events are perfectly natural (albeit rare) occurrences in those forest types as well (Shinneman and Baker 1997; Ehle and Baker 2003; Marlon et al. 2012). Consequently, one fire regime does not fit all forests (Baker and Williams 2018), and the absence of nuance in Stephens et al.’s restoration message is potentially misleading.

Topic(s): Fire & Climate
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 22870
Record updated: Apr 6, 2021