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The number of wildfires and the amount of land they consume in the western U.S. has substantially increased since the 1980s, a trend often attributed to ongoing climate change. Now, new research finds fires are not only becoming more common in the western U.S. but the area burned at high severity is also increasing, a trend that may lead to long-term forest loss.

The new findings show warmer temperatures and drier conditions are driving an eight-fold increase in annual area burned by high severity fire across western forests from 1985-2017.  In total, annual area burned by high severity wildfires — defined as those that kill more than 95% of trees — increased by more than 450,000 acres.

Single out a grove of trees about the size of a couple of basketball courts. Hike up there and count every tree in that space, measure its height, check its health and record all the results.

Repeat 2.8 billion times.

Or call up the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station and borrow their new Tree Map. In a 21st-century version of seeing the forest for the trees, a team of fire researchers in Missoula have crunched all those pixels of satellite data to inventory the woods covering nearly a third of the Continental United States.

When large, high severity fires burn in warmer and drier forests, more trees are killed and the seeds that would spawn new life wiped out. While ponderosa pines are adapted to fire, their seeds are also heavy and don’t travel great distances — maybe a 100 meter radius at most. Those conditions make regeneration improbable when tens of thousands of acres of forest are decimated.

“Even if seed sources are present, the post-fire climate conditions are becoming increasingly dry and warm, and there’s a reduced probability that seeds can turn into seedlings and young trees,” said Sean Parks, a Forest Service ecologist...

For Sustainable Idaho's investigation of Salmon in Idaho, co-hosts Rachel McGovern and Scott Greeves speak to Russ Thurow. Russ is a Fisheries Research Scientist for the U.S Forest Service. We discuss the current management techniques and their challenges, contextualize the current Salmon population against historical numbers and look to the future for Salmon in Idaho. 

Year after year, more wildfires are burning more forests across California and the West.

A new study from a research team with the U.S. Forest Service and UC Merced shows that an increasing number of these fires are highly severe — hot enough to kill nearly all of the trees, even in forests that are adapted to fire.

“Between 1985 and 2017, we documented an eightfold increase in area burned at high severity,” said research ecologist Sean Parks, lead author of the study. “When high-severity fires kill all or most trees — and under a warming climate — the forest has a hard time recovering.”

...Several other factors weigh against the long-term survival of the species.
The trees are vulnerable to a foreign fungal infection, which took root in North America a century ago, as well as to native beetles that burrow into the bark of pine trees. And more frequent and ferocious fires — themselves fueled by climate change — are also scorching the pine and its habitat. The result of those many threats, according to a 2018 study by the U.S. Forest Service, is that more than half of all whitebark pines left standing in the United States are already dead.

Five of the six largest fires in California history and three of the four largest in Colorado history all burned this year. This dramatic increase in the acres burned by immense wildfires is being driven by fires which are burning hotter and more intensely than they used to.

In fact, according to a new study, there's been an eight-fold increase since the mid-1980s in annual area burned by high-severity wildfires — defined as a fire that kills more than 95% of trees. The transformation in fire behavior has happened fast, with this exponential increase happening in just one generation over the course of 30 years.

These more intense fires have a lasting impact on the ecosystem.

"As more area burns at high severity, the likelihood of conversion to different forest types or even to non-forest increases," said Sean Parks, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station and lead author of the new study.

Some 210,000 acres burned in 2017, up from 26,000 acres in 1985, in high severity fires that kill more than 95% of trees in their path, according to a study by the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, a government organization.

As the intensity of fires and temperatures rise due to global warming, the western forests lost in severe blazes may be unable to grow back to what they once were, the research said.

“As more area burns at high severity, the likelihood of conversion to different forest types or even to non-forest increases,” said Sean Parks, a research ecologist at the Forest Service organization and lead author of the study.

New University of Montana research suggests recurring continent-spanning drought patterns set the tempo for forest recovery from wildfire. A study published Nov. 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that  from fire follows a drought seesaw, called a climate dipole, that alternates between the Northwest and the Southwest every few years.

...The area burned at high severity across the western US accelerated between 1985 and 2017, the study’s lead author Dr Sean Parks, a research ecologist at the United States Forest Service, told The Independent.

“Given the observed relationships between all annual fire metrics and fire season climate, it is reasonable to expect that continued climate change will result in increased annual area burned at high severity,” he added.

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