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Bending the carbon curve: fire management for carbon resilience under climate change

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Abstract

Context

Forest landscapes are increasingly managed for fire resilience, particularly in the western US which has recently experienced drought and widespread, high-severity wildfires. Fuel reduction treatments have been effective where fires coincide with treated areas. Fuel treatments also have the potential to reduce drought-mortality if tree density is uncharacteristically high, and to increase long-term carbon storage by reducing high-severity fire probability.

Objective

Assess whether fuel treatments reduce fire intensity and spread and increase carbon storage under climate change.

Methods

We used a simulation modeling approach that couples a landscape model of forest disturbance and succession with an ecosystem model of carbon dynamics (Century), to quantify the interacting effects of climate change, fuel treatments and wildfire for carbon storage potential in a mixed-conifer forest in the western USA.

Results

Our results suggest that fuel treatments have the potential to ‘bend the C curve’, maintaining carbon resilience despite climate change and climate-related changes to the fire regime. Simulated fuel treatments resulted in reduced fire spread and severity. There was partial compensation of C lost during fuel treatments with increased growth of residual stock due to greater available soil water, as well as a shift in species composition to more drought- and fire-tolerant Pinus jeffreyi at the expense of shade-tolerant, fire-susceptible Abies concolor.

Conclusions

Forest resilience to global change can be achieved through management that reduces drought stress and supports the establishment and dominance of tree species that are more fire- and drought-resistant, however, achieving a net C gain from fuel treatments may take decades.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the Lake Tahoe Basin agency personnel who participated in workshops and provided data and guidance throughout the project. We also thank Alison Stanton, consultant at South Lake Tahoe, CA, Jian Yang, scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Tom Dilts, spatial analyst at the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science, University of Nevada-Reno, and Carl Skinner, geographer at the Pacific Southwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service for their hard work and support throughout this project. Funding was provided by the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act (Grant No. 10 DG-11272170-038), Bureau of Lands Management (P049, P086) and in part by the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program of the Department of Defense (RC-2243). We thank the Forestry Sciences Laboratory, Southern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Athens, GA, USA, for their support.

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Correspondence to E. L. Loudermilk.

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Loudermilk, E.L., Scheller, R.M., Weisberg, P.J. et al. Bending the carbon curve: fire management for carbon resilience under climate change. Landscape Ecol 32, 1461–1472 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-016-0447-x

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