Fire & Climate
Temperate conifer forests stressed by climate change could be lost through tree regeneration decline in the interior of high-severity fires, resulting in type conversion to non-forest vegetation from seed-dispersal limitation, competition, drought stress, and reburns. However, is fire triggering this global change syndrome at a high rate? To find out, I analyzed a worst-case scenario. I calculated fire rotations (FRs, expected period to burn once across an area) across ~56 million ha of forests (~80% of total forest area) in 11 western USA states from 2000 to 2020 for total high-severity fire area, interior area (>90 m inward), and reburned area. Unexpectedly, there was no trend in area burned at high severity from 2000 to 2020 across the four forest types studied. The vulnerable interior area averaged only 21.9% of total high-severity fire area, as 78.1% of burned area was within 90 m of live seed sources where successful tree regeneration is likely. FRs averaged 453 years overall, 2089 years in interiors, and 19,514 years in reburns. Creation of vulnerable interior area in a particular location is thus, on average, a 2000+ year event, like a very rare natural disaster, and reburns that may favor type conversion to non-forest have almost no effect. This means that, from 2021 to 2050 at most, only 3.0-4.2% of total forest area may become a vulnerable interior area, based on a likely high aridity-based climate projection of future fire and a higher scenario, where rates in the exceptional 2020 fire year have become the norm. These findings show that increased management to reduce high-severity fires is not currently needed, as the risk to forests from this global change syndrome is likely quite low up to 2050. Faster and larger disturbances (e.g., severe droughts) are more likely to cause most tree mortality or forest loss that occurs by 2050.