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Author(s):
Tzeidle N. Wasserman, Stephanie E. Mueller
Year Published:

Cataloging Information

Topic(s):
Fire Intensity / Burn Severity
Fire Return Intervals
Fire & Climate

NRFSN number: 25755
Record updated:

Background

Increases in fire activity and changes in fire regimes have been documented in recent decades across the western United States. Climate change is expected to continue to exacerbate impacts to forested ecosystems by increasing the frequency, size, and severity of wildfires across the western United States (US). Warming temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns are altering western landscapes and making them more susceptible to high-severity fire. Increases in large patches of high-severity fire can result in significant impacts to landscape processes and ecosystem function and changes to vegetation structure and composition. In this synthesis, we examine the predicted climatic influence on fire regimes and discuss the impacts on fire severity, vegetation dynamics, and the interactions between fire, vegetation, and climate. We describe predicted changes, impacts, and risks related to fire with climate change and discuss how management options may mitigate some impacts of predicted fire severity, and moderate some impacts to forests, carbon, and vegetation changes post fire.

Results

Climate change is increasing fire size, fire severity, and driving larger patches of high-severity fire. Many regions are predicted to experience an increase in fire severity where conditions are hotter and drier and changes in fire regimes are evident. Increased temperatures, drought conditions, fuels, and weather are important drivers of fire severity. Recent increases in fire severity are attributed to changes in climatic water deficit (CMD), vapor pressure deficit (VPD), evapotranspiration (ET), and fuels. Fire weather and vegetation species composition also influence fire severity. Future increases in fire severity are likely to impact forest resilience and increase the probability of forest type conversions in many ecosystems.

Conclusions

Increasing warming and drying trends are likely to cause more frequent and severe disturbances in many forested ecosystems in the near future. Large patches of high-severity fire have lasting legacies on vegetation composition and structure, and impacts on tree regeneration. In some ecosystems and under certain fire-weather conditions, restoration and fuel treatments may reduce the area burned at high severity and reduce conversions from forest to non-forest conditions, increasing forest resistance and resilience to wildland fire. Thinning and prescribed fire treatments can be effective at reducing the potential for crown fire, reducing fuels, and promoting forest resilience.

Citation

Wasserman TN and Mueller SE. 2023. Climate influences on future fire severity: a synthesis of climate-fire interactions and impacts on fire regimes, high-severity fire, and forests in the western United States. Fire Ecology 19, Article number: 43 (2023).

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