New NW CASC-funded Synthesis Explores the Effects of Changing Climate Conditions on Wildfires and Forests of the Northwest

Forests are an iconic feature of Northwest landscapes. From dense forests of towering conifers in the west to ponderosa pine forests in the east, these ecosystems provide water, wildlife habitat, timber, recreation and other benefits. But Northwest forests and the resources they provide are sensitive to climate change.

As climate continues to change across the Northwest, the need for climate-informed forest management will grow. In response to this need, NW CASC-funded researchers developed a state-of-science synthesis on the potential effects of changing climate on fire regimes in Northwest forests. This publication reviews existing literature sources to determine likely changes in fire regimes and how Northwest forests may respond to the combined effects of climate and fire activity. The authors provide a risk-based summary of their findings, describe the implications for forest management and identify remaining research needs.

This synthesis explores how climate change will bring warmer and drier conditions that will likely lead to larger wildfires, droughts and insect outbreaks that stress our forests. When these disturbances interact, they can affect the establishment and growth of new trees, with consequences for the future structure and composition of our forested ecosystems.

Larger and more severe wildfires in Pacific Northwest forests are expected to increasingly challenge resource managers of public and private lands. Fortunately, many current forest management practices, including reducing forest density and surface fuels in dry forests and controlling invasive species, can be considered climate smart because they increase resilience to changing climate and disturbances. Although managers may not be able to affect the total area burned by fire, forest management practices such as thinning and prescribed fire can help decrease fire intensity and severity and improve forest resilience to fire, insects and drought.

Our forests are changing, but there are actions we can take now to help our forests become more resilient to future stresses and continue to provide services for society. Adapting forest management strategies can help forest ecosystems transition to changing climate conditions while continuing to provide benefits to lands, waters, wildlife and people. Starting the process of adaptation now, before an increase in uncharacteristic wildfire occurs, will help safeguard forests now and in the future.

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Plumes of black smoke and fire consume a forested hillside
Pioneer Fire, Boise National Forest, Idaho, 2016
Source: Kari Greer, U.S. Forest Service