Fuel treatments and landform modify landscape patterns of burn severity in an extreme fire event

Under a rapidly warming climate, a critical management issue in semiarid forests of western North America is how to increase forest resilience to wildfire. 

Researchers from the University of Washington evaluated the relationships between fuel reduction treatments and burn severity in the 2006 Tripod Complex fires, which burned over 70 000 ha of mixed-conifer forests in the North Cascades range of Washington State and involved 387 past harvest and fuel treatment units. 

A secondary objective was to investigate other drivers of burn severity including landform, weather, vegetation characteristics, and a recent mountain pine beetle outbreak. 

Even during extreme weather, fuel conditions and landform strongly influenced patterns of burn severity. Fuel treatments that included recent prescribed burning of surface fuels were particularly effective at mitigating burn severity. Although surface and canopy fuel treatments are unlikely to substantially reduce the area burned in regional fire years, recent research, including this study, suggests that they can be an effective management strategy for increasing forest landscape resilience to wildfires.

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Image credit: S J Prichard