Fighting Drought with Fire: A Comparison of Burned and Unburned Forests in Drought-Impacted Areas of the Southwest

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Drought is one of the biggest threats facing our forests today. In the western U.S., severe drought and rising temperatures have caused increased tree mortality and complete forest diebacks. Forests are changing rapidly, and while land managers are working to develop long-term climate change adaptation plans, they require tools that can enhance forest resistance to drought now. To address this ...

Drought is one of the biggest threats facing our forests today. In the western U.S., severe drought and rising temperatures have caused increased tree mortality and complete forest diebacks. Forests are changing rapidly, and while land managers are working to develop long-term climate change adaptation plans, they require tools that can enhance forest resistance to drought now. To address this immediate need, researchers are examining whether a common forest management tool, prescribed fire, can be implemented to help forests better survive drought.

 

Prescribed fire is commonly used in the western U.S. to remove potential wildfire fuel, such as small trees and shrubs. It is also thought that this act of selectively removing some trees helps the remaining trees better survive drought events, because there is less competition for water. However, the proposition that prescribed burning could improve forest resistance to drought has never been formally tested. By comparing the survivorship of trees in burned and unburned forest monitoring plots in drought-impacted areas, researchers will determine (a) whether prescribed fire is an effective tool for improving forest resistance to drought, and (b) whether factors such as time since fire and tree species and size influence a forest’s degree of resistance.

 

In the face of ongoing climate change and projected future drought conditions in the West, this study will help land managers make informed decisions on how to best allocate limited climate change adaptation funds. The results will help managers make cost-benefit analyses of dollars spent using prescribed fire and determine whether this method can be used to prepare forests for a drier future.