Skip to main content

Forest thinning and prescribed burning treatments reduce wildfire severity and buffer the impacts of severe fire weather

Year of Publication
Publication Type


The capacity of forest fuel treatments to moderate the behavior and severity of subsequent wildfires depends on weather and fuel conditions at the time of burning. However, in-depth evaluations of how treatments perform are limited because encounters between wildfires and areas with extensive pre-fire data are rare. Here, we took advantage of a 1200-ha randomized and replicated experiment that burned almost entirely in a subsequent wildfire under a wide range of weather conditions. We compared the impacts of four fuel treatments on fire severity, including two thin-only, a thin-burn, a burn-only, and an untreated control. We evaluated four fire severity metrics—tree mortality, average bole char height, percent crown volume consumed (PCVC), and percent crown volume affected (PCVA)—and leveraged data from pre-fire surface and canopy fuels to better understand the mechanisms driving differences in wildfire severity among treatments and how they changed with fire weather.


We found strong mitigating effects of treatments on fire behavior and tree mortality, despite 20 years having elapsed since mechanical thinning and 10 years since the second entry of prescribed fire. The thin-burn treatment resulted in the lowest fire severity across all four metrics and the untreated control the highest. All four fire severity metrics were positively associated with pre-fire canopy and surface fuel loads, with the exception that PCVC (a fire severity metric related to crown fire behavior) was not associated with surface fuel load. The fire weather conditions under which fuel treatment was most effective varied among fire severity metrics. Fuel treatment benefit was maximized at intermediate burning index values for tree mortality, intermediate to high burning index values for PCVA, and high burning index for bole char height and PCVC.


We conclude that reducing canopy bulk density via mechanical thinning treatments can help to limit crown fire behavior for 20 years or more. However, reducing surface fuels is necessary to limit scorching and the total crown impacts associated with tree mortality. Further, while fuel treatment effectiveness may decline under the most severe fire weather conditions for fire severity metrics associated with tree mortality, it is maximized under severe fire weather conditions for fire severity metrics associated with crown fire behavior (bole charring and torching). Our results provide strong evidence for the use of fuel treatments to mitigate fire behavior and resulting fire severity even under extreme fire weather conditions.

Emily G. Brodie, Eric E. Knapp, Wesley R. Brooks, Stacy A. Drury & Martin W. Ritchie

Brodie, E.G., Knapp, E.E., Brooks, W.R. et al. Forest thinning and prescribed burning treatments reduce wildfire severity and buffer the impacts of severe fire weather. fire ecol 20, 17 (2024).

Publication File