Native pinyon (Pinus spp.) and juniper (Juniperus spp.) trees are expanding into shrubland communities across the Western United States. These trees often outcompete with native sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) associated species, resulting in increased canopy fuels and reduced surface fuels. Woodland expansion often results in longer fire return intervals with potential for high severity crown fire. Fuel treatments are commonly used to prevent continued tree infilling and growth and reduce fire risk, increase ecological resilience, improve forage quality and quantity, and/or improve wildlife habitat. Treatments may present a trade-off; they restore shrub and herbaceous cover and decrease risk of canopy fire but may increase surface fuel load and surface fire potential. We measured the accumulation of surface and canopy fuels over 10 years from ten sites across the Intermountain West in the Sagebrush Steppe Treatment Evaluation Project woodland network (www.SageSTEP.org), which received prescribed fire or mechanical (cut and drop) tree reduction treatments. We used the field data and the Fuel Characteristic Classification System (FCCS) in the Fuel and Fire Tools (FFT) application to estimate surface and canopy fire behavior in treated and control plots in tree expansion phases I, II, and III.
Increased herbaceous surface fuel following prescribed fire treatments increased the modeled rate of surface fire spread (ROS) 21-fold and nearly tripled flame length (FL) by year ten post-treatment across all expansion phases. In mechanical treatments, modeled ROS increased 15-fold, FL increased 3.8-fold, and reaction intensity roughly doubled in year ten post-treatment compared to pretreatment and untreated controls. Treatment effects were most pronounced at 97th percentile windspeeds, with modeled ROS up to 82 m min−1 in mechanical and 106 m min−1 in prescribed fire treatments by 10 years post-treatment compared to 5 m min−1 in untreated controls. Crown fire transmissivity risk was eliminated by both fuel treatments.
While prescribed fire and mechanical treatments in shrublands experiencing tree expansion restored understory vegetation and prevented continued juniper and pinyon infilling and growth, these fuel treatments also increased modeled surface fire behavior. Thus, management tradeoffs occur between desired future vegetation and wildfire risk after fuel treatments.