Fire Intensity / Burn Severity
Recovery after fire
In the western US, wildfires are modifying the structure, composition, and patterns of forested landscapes at rates that far exceed mechanical thinning and prescribed fire treatments. There are conflicting narratives as to whether these wildfires are restoring landscape resilience to future climate and wildfires. To evaluate the landscape-level work of wildfires, we assessed four subwatersheds in eastern Washington, USA that experienced large wildfires in 2014, 2015, or 2017 after more than a century of fire exclusion and extensive timber harvest. We compared pre- and post-fire landscape conditions to an ecoregion-specific historical (HRV) and future range of variation (FRV) based on empirically established reference conditions derived from a large dataset of historical aerial photo imagery. These four wildfires proved to be a blunt restoration tool, moving some attributes towards more climate-adapted conditions and setting others back. Fires reduced canopy cover and decreased overall tree size and canopy complexity, which moved them into, or slightly outside, the FRV ranges. Moderate- and low-severity fire generally shifted closed-canopy forest structure to open-canopy classes. Patches of high-severity fire shifted patterns of forest, woodland, grassland, and shrubland towards or beyond the HRV ranges and within the FRV ranges by increasing the total area and size of non-forest patches. However, large patches of high-severity fire in dry and moist mixed-conifer forests homogenized landscape patterns beyond FRV ranges towards simplified conditions dominated by non-forest vegetation types. Fires realigned and reconnected landscape patterns with the topo-edaphic template in some cases, but pre-existing fragmentation and spatial mismatches were compounded in many others. Patches of large-tree, closed-canopy forest were reduced by high-severity fire, and the potential to restore more climate-adapted large-tree, open-canopy forest was lost. Re-establishing landscape patterns with desired patch sizes of forest, in particular patches with large trees, will take many decades to centuries and may not occur in drier locations or where seed trees are no longer present. While large wildfires burning during extreme fire weather conditions can move some attributes towards HRV and FRV ranges, intentionally planned mechanical and prescribed-fire treatments that are integrated with strategic wildfire response will better prepare and adapt landscapes for future wildfires and climate.