Wildfire and climate change adaptation of western North American forests: a case for intentional management

TitleWildfire and climate change adaptation of western North American forests: a case for intentional management
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2021
AuthorsHessburg, PF, Prichard, SJ, R. Hagmann, K, Povak, NA, Lake, FK
JournalEcological Applications
Date Published08/2021
Keywordsclimate change, forest landscape changes, Indigenous fire use, landscape resilience, Social-ecological systems, technical reports and journal articles

We review science-based adaptation strategies for western North American (wNA) forests that include restoring active fire regimes and fostering resilient structure and composition of forested landscapes. As part of the review, we address common questions associated with climate adaptation and realignment treatments that run counter to a broad consensus in the literature. These include the following: (1) Are the effects of fire exclusion overstated? If so, are treatments unwarranted and even counterproductive? (2) Is forest thinning alone sufficient to mitigate wildfire hazard? (3) Can forest thinning and prescribed burning solve the problem? (4) Should active forest management, including forest thinning, be concentrated in the wildland urban interface (WUI)? (5) Can wildfires on their own do the work of fuel treatments? (6) Is the primary objective of fuel reduction treatments to assist in future firefighting response and containment? (7) Do fuel treatments work under extreme fire weather? (8) Is the scale of the problem too great? Can we ever catch up? (9) Will planting more trees mitigate climate change in wNA forests? And (10) is post-fire management needed or even ecologically justified? Based on our review of the scientific evidence, a range of proactive management actions are justified and necessary to keep pace with changing climatic and wildfire regimes and declining forest heterogeneity after severe wildfires. Science-based adaptation options include the use of managed wildfire, prescribed burning, and coupled mechanical thinning and prescribed burning as is consistent with land management allocations and forest conditions. Although some current models of fire management in wNA are averse to short-term risks and uncertainties, the long-term environmental,  social, and cultural consequences of wildfire management primarily grounded in fire suppression are well documented, highlighting an urgency to invest in intentional forest management and restoration of active fire regimes.