Scientists identify 'opportunity hotspots' to tackle wildfire-related carbon loss in the US West

An inter-organizational team of scientists has identified “opportunity hotspots” across the U.S. West where forest managers could target their efforts to mitigate the risk of wildfire-related carbon loss. As both climate change and wildfires have intensified, so too have concerns about the release of carbon that has been stored by trees for decades or even...

Scientists identify 'opportunity hotspots' to tackle wildfire-related carbon loss in the US West

An inter-organizational team of scientists has identified “opportunity hotspots” across the U.S. West where forest managers could target their efforts to mitigate the risk of wildfire-related carbon loss.

As both climate change and wildfires have intensified, so too have concerns about the release of carbon that has been stored by trees for decades or even centuries, according to the researchers, who came together from federal, academic and nonprofit institutions. 

With the goal of reducing such loss and benefiting adjacent communities, they mapped out the optimal spots for mitigation efforts — publishing their findings in Environmental Research Letters. 

“Our approach can help land management agencies plan where to invest in proactive forest treatments that simultaneously reduce wildfire-caused carbon loss and protect communities from wildfire,” lead author Jamie Peeler, a landscape ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Montana, said in a statement.

“It also could be applied to reduce risk from wildfire to other important values such as municipal water, culturally important plants, recreation and wildlife habitat,” added Peeler, who worked with colleagues at the U.S. Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy.

To assess this risk, the collaborators evaluated where future fires pose the biggest threat to living trees, as well as the carbon they store. Then they compared their results to locations highlighted in the U.S. Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy, to identify where human populations are most vulnerable to wildfire.

Areas of overlap indicated what the scientists characterized as “opportunity hot spots” — or spots where preventative action could reduce the risks of carbon loss and minimize harm to adjacent communities.

The researchers determined that relative to their total forest area, California, New Mexico and Arizona contain the biggest proportion of carbon that is highly vulnerable to wildfire-related loss.

“The need for proactive forest management in California, New Mexico and Arizona is particularly urgent,” co-author Travis Woolley, a forest ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Arizona, said in a statement.

Most wildfire-related carbon loss occurs when litter, decaying underbrush and downed woody material is consumed by a blaze, according to the authors. But over time, as the toppled trees decompose, they produce another source of carbon loss, the researchers added.

Proactive forest management — including forest thinning, prescribed fire and cultural burning — would diminish the availability of excess fuels and thereby reduce the number of trees killed in wildfires, the authors stressed.

By keeping more trees alive on their given landscapes, such efforts would facilitate the ongoing capture and storage of carbon from the atmosphere and provide seeds for future forest growth, according to the researchers.

“As governments take action to address the escalating climate and wildfire crises, they do not need to choose between climate- and wildfire-mitigation goals,” co-author Kerry Metlen, senior forest scientist for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon, said in a statement.

“In the western U.S., opportunities are widespread to achieve both objectives with strategically placed proactive forest management,” Metlen added.