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Interactions of climate, fire, and management in future forests of the Pacific Northwest

Abstract

A longer, hotter, and drier fire season is projected for the Pacific Northwest under future climate scenarios, and the area burned by wildfires is projected to increase as a result. Fuel treatments are an important management tool in the drier forests of this region where they have been shown to modify fire behavior and fire effects, yet we know relatively little about how treatments will interact with changing climate and expanding human populations to influence fire regimes and ecosystem services over larger area and longer time periods. As a step toward addressing this knowledge gap, this paper synthesizes the recent literature on climate, fire, and forest management in the Pacific Northwest to summarize projected changes and assess how forest management can aid in adapting to future fire regimes and reducing their negative impacts. Increased wildfire under future climates has the potential to affect many ecosystem services, including wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, and water and air quality. Fuel treatments in dry forest types can reduce fire severity and size, and strategically-placed treatments can help to protect both property and natural resources from wildfire. Although increased rates of burning are projected to reduce carbon stocks across the region, research to date suggests that fuel treatments are unlikely to result in significant increases in carbon storage. Prescribed burning combined with thinning has been demonstrated to be effective at reducing fire severity across a variety of dry forest types, but there is uncertainty about whether changing climate and increasing human encroachment into the wildland–urban interface will limit the use of prescribed fire in the future. Most fire research has focused on the dry forest types, and much less is known about the ecological impacts of increased wildfire activity in the moist forests and the potential for adapting to these changes through forest management. To address these knowledge gaps, future research efforts should build on the Pacific Northwest’s legacy of integrated regional assessments to incorporate broad-scale climatic drivers with processes operating at the stand and landscape levels, including vegetation succession, fire spread, treatment effects, and the expansion of human populations into wildland areas. An important outcome of this type of research would be the identification of localized “hot spots” that are most sensitive to future changes, and are where limited resources for fire management should be concentrated.

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