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Fire Suppression Hurts Carbon Storage of Dry Temperate Forests
Released: 2/15/2011 11:00:00 AM

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Office of Communication
119 National Center
Reston, VA 20192
Ben Young Landis, USGS 1-click interview
Phone: 916-616-9468

Cindy Brown, NAU
Phone:



In partnership with: Northern Arizona University
 

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Forests should be managed according to their respective, specific fire ecology — not whole-scale fire suppression or one-size-fits-all plans — to optimize forest growth and stabilize carbon storage.

In a study published in BioScience this month, authors Matthew Hurteau of Northern Arizona University and Matthew Brooks of the U.S. Geological Survey reviewed forest ecology and fire treatment research from recent decades. The authors note that while historical fire suppression has lowered fire frequency, it has allowed forest fuels to accumulate in some forest types to the point where fires are now more severe and kill more trees.

“In dry temperate forests, such as mixed-conifer forests in California and ponderosa pine forests in Arizona, the long-term result is that trees are getting killed by fires faster than they can grow back,” says Hurteau, an assistant professor at the NAU School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability.  “And,” he adds, “since burning trees release carbon and growing trees store carbon, the result is that some of our forests are becoming a net source of carbon emissions.”

It is a trend likely to increase as climate change enhances fire conditions.

The findings have implications for managers of dry temperate forests around the world, who must balance the priorities of habitat protection, timber production, carbon sequestration and community risk to wildfires.

Hurteau and Brooks suggest several ecology-based fire management practices to help return dry temperate forests to their previous, natural fire regime.

One practice is mechanical thinning or removing small to medium trees on a regular basis — since they act as “ladder fuels” for fires to spread to tree tops, where fire can spread to surrounding trees and increase in severity. Depending on the species, these removed trees could be used for lumber or milled for biofuel production, Brooks says.

Other practices to thin ladder fuels include allowing low- to moderate-severity wildfires to spread or using prescribed fires.

“By managing a forest according to the natural fire regime it is adapted to, it stands a better chance of long-term survival,” says Brooks, who is based at the Yosemite Field Station of the USGS Western Ecological Research Center. “And a dry temperate forest returned to its fire regime of regular burns is a forest that stores more carbon, provides more habitat and timber, and isn’t prone to wide-spreading, tree-killing fires.”

Funding and support for the research came from the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service.

 

For more fire research by NAU’s Matt Hurteau, please visit: http://oak.ucc.nau.edu/mdh22

For more fire research by USGS’ Matt Brooks, please visit: http://www.werc.usgs.gov/yosemite

 

MEDIA NOTE: The following resource experts and professionals are available as outside commenters of the study. They were not affiliated with the study. Please contact directly:

Malcolm North, Research Forest Ecologist, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station
mpnorth@ucdavis.edu
, 530-754-7398

Hugh Safford, Regional Ecologist, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region
hughsafford@fs.fed.us
, 707-562-8934

David Ganz, Director of Forest Carbon Science, The Nature Conservancy
dganz@tnc.org
, 510-336-0809

Mary Huffman, Director of Fire Training, The Nature Conservancy
mhuffman@tnc.org, 303-541-0323


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