Keeping wildland fires from spreading to human communities is the first and foremost priority of the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighters, according to the agency’s 2022 Wildfire Crisis Strategy Implementation Plan.
“Community exposure is a central factor in the strategy to confront the wildfire crisis,” the plan’s text reads. The plan goes on to identify what it called “high-risk firesheds” within National Forest Systems lands that it would focus on shifting land management towards increasing fuels and forest health treatments.
Recent research published in the Environmental Research Letters journal, however, found that the USFS hallmark decade-long plan misses the mark and doesn’t truly address what would stop more intense wildfires from igniting in the centuries to come: reducing carbon lost by wildland fire.
Conifer forests throughout the western U.S. play an integral role in sequestering and storing carbon in Earth’s atmosphere when these forests have a wildfire burning through them, carbon is not lost equally. Higher amounts of litter, duff and downed woody material consumed by fire, as well as post-fire decomposing trees, cause a greater risk of carbon loss. An increase in carbon output into Earth’s atmosphere will further increase the effects of climate change and, in turn, make wildfires more widespread and intense.
The study, a collaboration with the Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy, and University of Montana researchers, first evaluated where carbon was the most exposed and sensitive to wildfires. “Exposed” was defined as the largest concentrated areas of living and dead biomass’ burn probability, while “sensitive” compared areas for potential carbon loss and carbon recovery following wildland fire. They found that the most exposed carbon was not necessarily the most sensitive to wildfire.
“Relative to their total conifer forest area, states containing the greatest proportion of most exposed carbon … were California (63%), New Mexico (49%), and Arizona (44%),” researchers said. “In contrast, states with the greatest proportion of most sensitive carbon … were New Mexico (74%), Utah (67%), and Colorado (66%).”
Researchers then built upon the agency’s “high-risk firesheds” by combining high-risk areas for human communities and high-risk areas for wildfire-caused carbon loss.
“After overlaying our 308 opportunity hot spots on previously published maps of 140 high-risk all-lands firesheds for human communities, we observed that 64 firesheds overlapped,” the researchers said. “Here we represented those firesheds in gold to emphasize that improving reciprocal relationships between humans and forests can support multiple ecological, social, and cultural values concurrently.”
Read the full study [HERE].