Climatic Change

, Volume 132, Issue 4, pp 709–719 | Cite as

The carbon balance of reducing wildfire risk and restoring process: an analysis of 10-year post-treatment carbon dynamics in a mixed-conifer forest

  • Morgan L. WiechmannEmail author
  • Matthew D. Hurteau
  • Malcolm P. North
  • George W. Koch
  • Lucie Jerabkova


Forests sequester carbon from the atmosphere, helping mitigate climate change. In fire-prone forests, burn events result in direct and indirect emissions of carbon. High fire-induced tree mortality can cause a transition from a carbon sink to source, but thinning and prescribed burning can reduce fire severity and carbon loss when wildfire occurs. However, treatment implementation requires carbon removal and emissions to reduce high-severity fire risk. The carbon removed and emitted during treatment may be resequestered by subsequent tree growth, although there is much uncertainty regarding the length of time required. To assess the long-term carbon dynamics of thinning and burning treatments, we quantified the 10-year post-treatment carbon stocks and 10-year net biome productivity (NBP) from a full-factorial experiment involving three levels of thinning and two levels of burning in a mixed-conifer forest in California’s Sierra Nevada. Our results indicate that (1) the understory thin treatment, that retained large trees, quickly recovered the initial carbon emissions (NBP = 31.4 ± 4.2 Mg C ha−1), (2) the carbon emitted from prescribed fire in the burn-only treatment was resequestered within the historical fire return interval (NBP = 32.8 ± 3.5 Mg C ha−1), and (3) the most effective treatment for reducing fire risk, understory thin and burn, had negative NBP (−6.0 ± 4.5 Mg C ha−1) because of post-fire large tree mortality. Understory thinning and prescribed burning can help stabilize forest carbon and restore ecosystem resilience, but this requires additional emissions beyond only thinning or only burning. Retaining additional mid-sized trees may reduce the carbon impacts of understory thinning and burning.


Coarse Woody Debris Live Tree Fire Risk Prescribe Burning Prescribe Fire 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We acknowledge funding from the Joint Fire Science Program (10-1-10-14). We thank J.P. Kaye and A.H. Taylor for constructive feedback.

Supplementary material

10584_2015_1450_MOESM1_ESM.doc (419 kb)
ESM 1 (DOC 419 kb)


  1. Agee JK, Skinner CN (2005) Basic principles of forest fuel reduction treatments. For Ecol Manag 211:83–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bowman DM, Balch JK, Artaxo P, Bond WJ, Carlson JM, Cochrane MA, D'Antonio CM, Defries RS, Doyle JC, Harrison SP, Johnston FH, Keeley JE, Krawchuk MA, Kull CA, Marston JB, Moritz MA, Prentice IC, Roos CI, Scott AC, Swetnam TW, van der Werf GR, Pyne SJ (2009) Fire in the earth system. Science 324(5926):481–484Google Scholar
  3. Brown JK (1974) Handbook for inventorying downed woody material. In. US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-16, OgdenGoogle Scholar
  4. Campbell J, Donato DC, Azuma D, Law B (2007) Pyrogenic carbon emission from a large wildfire in Oregon, United States. J Geophys Res Biogeosci 112:11Google Scholar
  5. Campbell J, Alberti G, Martin J, Law B (2009) Carbon dynamics of a ponderosa pine plantation following a thinning treatment in the northern Sierra Nevada. For Ecol Manag 257:453–463CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Campbell JL, Harmon ME, Mitchell SR (2012) Can fuel-reduction treatments really increase forest carbon storage in the western US by reducing future fire emissions? Front Ecol Environ 10:83–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Canadell JG, Raupach MR (2008) Managing forests for climate change mitigation. Science 320:1456–1457CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chiono LA, O’Hara KL, De Lasaux MJ, Nader GA, Stephens SL (2012) Development of vegetation and surface fuels following fire hazard reduction treatment. Forests 3:700–722CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Collins BM (2014) Fire weather and large fire potential in the northern Sierra Nevada. Agr Forest Meteorol 189:30–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Collins BM, Stephens SL (2010) Stand-replacing patches within a ‘mixed severity’ fire regime: quantitative characterization using recent fires in a long-established natural fire area. Landsc Ecol 25:927–939CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Collins BM, Moghaddas JJ, Stephens SL (2007) Initial changes in forest structure and understory plant communities following fuel reduction activities in a Sierra Nevada mixed conifer forest. For Ecol Manag 239:102–111CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Covington WW, Moore MM (1994) Postsettlement changes in natural fire regimes and forest structure: ecological restoration of old-growth ponderosa pine forests. J Sustain For 2:153–181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dore S, Kolb TE, Montes-Helu M, Sullivan BW, Winslow WD, Hart SC, Kaye JP, Koch GW, Hungate BA (2008) Long-term impact of a stand-replacing fire on ecosystem CO2 exchange of a ponderosa pine forest. Glob Chang Biol 14:1801–1820CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Earles JM, North MP, Hurteau MD (2014) Wildfire and drought dynamics destabilize carbon stores of fire-suppressed forests. Ecol Appl 24:732–740CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Finkral A, Evans A (2008) The effects of a thinning treatment on carbon stocks in a northern Arizona ponderosa pine forest. For Ecol Manag 255:2743–2750CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fule PZ, Verkamp G, Waltz AE, Covington WW (2002) Prescribed burning on volcanic soils in the Grand Canyon’s Parashant National Monument produced unanticipated resultsGoogle Scholar
  17. Harmon ME, Cromack Jr K Smith BG (1987) Coarse woody debris in mixed-conifer forests, Sequoia National Park, California. Can J For Res 17(10):1265–1272Google Scholar
  18. Hurteau MD, Brooks ML (2011) Short- and long-term effects of fire on carbon in US dry temperate forest systems. Bioscience 61:139–146CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hurteau M, North M (2008) Mixed-conifer understory response to climate change, nitrogen, and fire. Glob Chang Biol 14:1543–1552CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hurteau M, North M (2009) Fuel treatment effects on tree-based forest carbon storage and emissions under modeled wildfire scenarios. Front Ecol Environ 7:409–414CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hurteau MD, North M (2010) Carbon recovery rates following different wildfire risk mitigation treatments. For Ecol Manag 260:930–937CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hurteau M, Zald H, North M (2007) Species-specific response to climate reconstruction in upper-elevation mixed-conifer forests of the western Sierra Nevada, California. Can J Forest Res 37:1681–1691CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hurteau MD, Koch GW, Hungate BA (2008) Carbon protection and fire risk reduction: toward a full accounting of forest carbon offsets. Front Ecol Environ 6:493–498CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hurteau MD, Bradford JB, Fulé PZ, Taylor AH, Martin KL (2013a) Climate change, fire management, and ecological services in the southwestern US. For Ecol Manag 327:280–289CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hurteau MD, Hungate BA, Koch GW, North MP, Smith GR (2013b) Aligning ecology and markets in the forest carbon cycle. Front Ecol Environ 11:37–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Innes JC, North MP, Williamson N (2006) Effect of thinning and prescribed fire restoration treatments on woody debris and snag dynamics in a Sierran old-growth, mixed-conifer forest. Can J Forest Res 36:3783–3793Google Scholar
  27. Jenkins JC, Chojnacky DC, Heath LS, Birdsey RA (2003) Comprehensive database of diameter based biomass regressions for North American tree species. USDA Forest Service. GTRNE-319, Newton Square, PAGoogle Scholar
  28. Keeley JE (2006) Fire management impacts on invasive plants in the western United States. Conserv Biol 20:375–384CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kerhoulas LP, Kolb TE, Hurteau MD, Koch GW (2013) Managing climate change adaptation in forests: a case study from the US Southwest. J Appl Ecol 50(6):1311–1320CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kilgore BM (1973) The ecological role of fire in Sierran conifer forests: its application to national park management. Quatern Res 3:496–513CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kloster S, Mahowald NM, Randerson JT, Lawrence PJ (2012) The impacts of climate, land use, and demography on fires during the 21st century simulated by CLM-CN. Biogeosciences 9:509–525CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Kurz WA, Dymond CC, Stinson G, Rampley GJ, Neilson ET, Carroll AL, Ebata T, Safranyik L (2008) Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change. Nature 452:987–990CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Laughlin DC, Fule PZ (2008) Wildland fire effects on understory plant communities in two fire-prone forests. Can J Forest Res 38:133–142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Marlon JR, Bartlein PJ, Gavin DG, Long CJ, Anderson RS, Briles CE, Brown KJ, Colombaroli D, Hallett DJ, Power MJ, Scharf EA, Walsh MK (2012) Long-term perspective on wildfires in the western USA. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 109:E535–E543CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Meyer MD, North MP, Gray AN, Zald HSJ (2007) Influence of soil thickness on stand characteristics in a Sierra Nevada mixed-conifer forest. Plant Soil 294:113–123CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Millar CI, Stephenson NL, Stephens SL (2007) Climate change and forests of the future: managing in the face of uncertainty. Ecol Appl 17:2145–2151CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Miller JD, Safford HD, Crimmins M, Thode AE (2009) Quantitative evidence for increasing forest fire severity in the sierra Nevada and Southern Cascade mountains, California and Nevada, USA. Ecosystems 12:16–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Mitchell SR, Harmon ME, O’Connell KEB (2009) Forest fuel reduction alters fire severity and long-term carbon storage in three Pacific Northwest ecosystems. Ecol Appl 19:643–655CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Moritz MA, Hurteau MD, Suding KN, D’Antonio CM (2013) Bounded ranges of variation as a framework for future conservation and fire management. Ann N Y Acad SciGoogle Scholar
  40. North MP, Hurteau MD (2011) High-severity wildfire effects on carbon stocks and emissions in fuels treated and untreated forest. For Ecol Manag 261:1115–1120CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. North M, Oakley B, Chen J, Erickson H, Gray A, Izzo A, Johnson D, Ma S, Marra J, Meyer M, Purcell K, Rambo T, Rizzo D, Roath B, Schowalter T (2002) Vegetation and ecological characteristics of mixed-conifer and red fir forests at the teakettle experimental forest. In. Pacific Southwest Research Station, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agricultrue, Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-186, AlbanyGoogle Scholar
  42. North M, Hurteau M, Fiegener R, Barbour M (2005) Influence of fire and El Niño on tree recruitment varies by species in Sierran mixed conifer. For Sci 51:187–197Google Scholar
  43. North M, Hurteau M, Innes J (2009a) Fire suppression and fuels treatment effects on mixed-conifer carbon stocks and emissions. Ecol Appl 19:1385–1396CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. North M, Stine P, O’Hara K, Zielinski W, Stephens S (2009b) An ecosystem management strategy for Sierran mixed-conifer forests. In: US Department of Agriculture, F.S., Pacific Southwest Research Station, PSW-GTR-220 (Ed.), Albany, p 49Google Scholar
  45. Pan YD, Birdsey RA, Fang JY, Houghton R, Kauppi PE, Kurz WA, Phillips OL, Shvidenko A, Lewis SL, Canadell JG, Ciais P, Jackson RB, Pacala SW, McGuire AD, Piao SL, Rautiainen A, Sitch S, Hayes D (2011) A large and persistent carbon sink in the world’s forests. Science 333:988–993CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Raymond CL, Peterson DL (2005) Fuel treatments alter the effects of wildfire in a mixed-evergreen forest, Oregon, USA. Can J Forest Res 35:2981–2995CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Roberts SL, van Wagtendonk JW, Miles AK, Kelt DA (2011) Effects of fire on spotted owl site occupancy in a late-successional forest. Biol Conserv 144:610–619CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Sala A, Peters GD, McIntyre LR, Harrington MG (2005) Physiological responses of ponderosa pine in western Montana to thinning, prescribed fire and burning season. Tree Physiol 25:339–348CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Scholl AE, Taylor AH (2010) Fire regimes, forest change, and self-reorganization in an old-growthGoogle Scholar
  50. Skog KE, Nicholson GA (1998) Carbon cycling through wood products: the role of wood and paper products in carbon sequestration. For Prod J 48:75–83Google Scholar
  51. Smith JE, Heath LS (2002) A model of forest floor carbon mass for United States forest types. Newtown Square, PA: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Research Station. 722Google Scholar
  52. Stephens SL, Finney MA (2002) Prescribed fire mortality of Sierra Nevada mixed conifer tree species: effects of crown damage and forest floor combustion. For Ecol Manag 162:261–271CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Stephens SL, Moghaddas JJ (2005) Experimental fuel treatment impacts on forest structure, potential fire behavior, and predicted tree mortality in a California mixed conifer forest. For Ecol Manag 215:21–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Stephens SL, Ruth LW (2005) Federal forest-fire policy in the United States. Ecol Appl 15:532–542CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Stephens SL, Moghaddas JJ, Hartsough BR, Moghaddas EEY, Clinton NE (2009) Fuel treatment effects on stand-level carbon pools, treatment-related emissions, and fire risk in a Sierra Nevada mixed-conifer forest. Can J Forest Res 39:1538–1547CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Stephens SL, Boerner RE, Moghaddas JJ, Moghaddas EE, Collins BM, Dow CB, Edminster C, Fiedler CE, Fry DL, Hartsough BR (2012) Fuel treatment impacts on estimated wildfire carbon loss from forests in Montana, Oregon, California, and Arizona. Ecosphere 3, art38Google Scholar
  57. Stephens S, Agee J, Fulé P, North M, Romme W, Swetnam T, Turner M (2013) Managing forests and fire in changing climates. Science 342:41–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Swezy DM, Agee JK (1991) Prescribed-fire effects on fine-root and tree mortality in old-growth ponderosa pine. Can J Forest Res 21:626–634CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Taylor AH, Skinner CN (2003) Spatial patterns and controls on historical fire regimes and forest structure in the Klamath Mountains. Ecol Appl 13:704–719CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Van de Water K, Safford H (2011) A summary of fire frequency estimate for California vegetation before Euro-American settlement. Fire Ecol 7:26–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. van der Werf GR, Randerson JT, Giglio L, Collatz GJ, Mu M, Kasibhatla PS, Morton DC, DeFries RS, Jin Y, van Leeuwen TT (2010) Global fire emissions and the contribution of deforestation, savanna, forest, agricultural, and peat fires (1997–2009). Atmos Chem Phys 10:11707–11735CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. van Mantgem PJ, Stephenson NL, Byrne JC, Daniels LD, Franklin JF, Fule PZ, Harmon ME, Larson AJ, Smith JM, Taylor AH, Veblen TT (2009) Widespread increase of tree mortality rates in the Western United States. Science 323:521–524CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. van Mantgem PJ, Nesmith JC, Keifer M, Brooks M (2013) Tree mortality patterns following prescribed fire for Pinus and Abies across the southwestern United States. For Ecol Manag 289:463–469CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Wayman RB, North M (2007) Initial response of a mixed-conifer understory plant community to burning and thinning restoration treatments. For Ecol Manag 239:32–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Westerling AL, Bryant BP (2008) Climate change and wildfire in California. Clim Chang 87(Suppl 1):S231–S249CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Westerling AL, Hidalgo HG, Cayan DR, Swetnam TW (2006) Warming and earlier spring increase western U.S. forest wildfire activity. Science 313:940–943CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Westerling AL, Bryant BP, Preisler HK, Holmes TP, Hidalgo H, Das T, Shrestha S (2011) Climate change and growth scenarios for California wildfire. Clim Chang 109(s1):S445–S463CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Zald HSJ, Gray AN, North M, Kern RA (2008) Initial tree regeneration responses to fire and thinning treatments in a Sierra Nevada mixed-conifer forest, USA. For Ecol Manag 256:168–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Morgan L. Wiechmann
    • 1
    Email author
  • Matthew D. Hurteau
    • 2
  • Malcolm P. North
    • 3
  • George W. Koch
    • 4
  • Lucie Jerabkova
    • 5
    • 6
  1. 1.IGDP in Ecology and Department of Ecosystem Science and ManagementThe Pennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Ecosystem Science and ManagementThe Pennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA
  3. 3.USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research StationDavisUSA
  4. 4.Center for Ecosystem Science and Society and Department of Biological ScienceNorthern Arizona UniversityFlagstaffUSA
  5. 5.Department of Plant ScienceUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA
  6. 6.Department of Forest ManagementCzech University of Life Sciences PraguePragueCzech Republic

Personalised recommendations