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A meta-analysis of thinning, prescribed fire, and wildfire effects on subsequent wildfire severity in conifer dominated forests of the Western US

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Increased understanding of how mechanical thinning, prescribed burning, and wildfire affect subsequent wildfire severity is urgently needed as people and forests face a growing wildfire crisis. In response, we reviewed scientific literature for the US West and completed a meta-analysis that answered three questions: (1) How much do treatments reduce wildfire severity within treated areas? (2) How do the effects vary with treatment type, treatment age, and forest type? (3) How does fire weather moderate the effects of treatments? We found overwhelming evidence that mechanical thinning with prescribed burning, mechanical thinning with pile burning, and prescribed burning only are effective at reducing subsequent wildfire severity, resulting in reductions in severity between 62% and 72% relative to untreated areas. In comparison, thinning only was less effective – underscoring the importance of treating surface fuels when mitigating wildfire severity is the management goal. The efficacy of these treatments did not vary among forest types assessed in this study and was high across a range of fire weather conditions. Prior wildfire had more complex impacts on subsequent wildfire severity, which varied with forest type and initial wildfire severity. Across treatment types, we found that effectiveness of treatments declined over time, with the mean reduction in wildfire severity decreasing more than twofold when wildfire occurred greater than 10 years after initial treatment. Our meta-analysis provides up-to-date information on the extent to which active forest management reduces wildfire severity and facilitates better outcomes for people and forests during future wildfire events.

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Effects of fire history on animal communities: A systematic review

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We performed a systematic review on the global responses of arthropods, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians to different fire regimes. Specifically, we focused on assessing how fire severity, history, and frequency modulate the effect of fire on the richness and abundance of faunal communities. We conducted a systematic review of 566 papers retrieved from the Scopus database. Our selection criteria excluded studies without data on species richness or abundance. We also excluded studies without adequate controls and those without information about the fire regime of the study zone. After careful examination, we used data from 162 studies to perform a quantitative meta-analysis. From the 162 studies meeting our selection criteria, nearly 60% of the studies are from North America, 25% from Australia, 11% from Europe, and 4% from the tropics. According to the ecological role of fire, 90% of the studies were carried out in fire-dependent ecosystems (i.e., conifer forests, natural savannas, pastures). Finally, 40% of the studies analyzed birds, 22% mammals, and 20% arthropods. The meta-analysis of the available evidence indicates that fire history is an important modulator of animal richness and abundance. Whether negative or positive, animal responses depended on the time since the last fire event. Considering that short-term studies may not capture such a long-term effect on fauna, this translates to more challenges at implementing fire management strategies. Whether or not we can anticipate the impact of the fire will then depend on future efforts to implement long-term research.

Roadside Fuel Break in sagebrush

Review of fuel treatment effects on fuels, fire behavior, and ecological resilience in sagebrush ecosystems in the western US

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This review revealed tradeoffs in woody fuel treatments between reducing canopy fuels vs. increasing understory herbaceous vegetation (fuels) and fire behavior. In pinyon-juniper expansion areas, all treatments decreased crown fire risk. Prescribed fire and cut and broadcast burn treatments reduced woody fuels long-term but had higher risk of invasion. Mechanical treatments left understory vegetation intact and increased native perennial plants. However, cut and leave treatments increased downed woody fuel and high-intensity wildfire risk, while cut and pile burn and mastication caused localized disturbances and annual grass invasion. Ecological outcomes depended on ecological resilience; sites with warm and dry conditions or depleted perennial native herbaceous species experienced lower recovery and resistance to invasive annual grasses. In invasive annual grass dominated areas, high-intensity targeted grazing reduced fine fuels but required retreatment or seeding; in intact ecosystems with relatively low shrub cover, dormant season targeted grazing reduced fine fuel and thus fire spread. Preemergent herbicides reduced annual grasses with differing effects in warm and dry vs. cool and moist environments.

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Climate influences on future fire severity: Synthesis of climate-fire interactions and impacts

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Increases in fire activity and changes in fire regimes have been documented in recent decades across the western United States. Climate change is expected to continue to exacerbate impacts to forested ecosystems by increasing the frequency, size, and severity of wildfires across the western United States (US). Warming temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns are altering western landscapes and making them more susceptible to high-severity fire. Increases in large patches of high-severity fire can result in significant impacts to landscape processes and ecosystem function and changes to vegetation structure and composition. In this synthesis, we examine the predicted climatic influence on fire regimes and discuss the impacts on fire severity, vegetation dynamics, and the interactions between fire, vegetation, and climate. We describe predicted changes, impacts, and risks related to fire with climate change and discuss how management options may mitigate some impacts of predicted fire severity, and moderate some impacts to forests, carbon, and vegetation changes post fire.

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Social science to advance wildfire adaptation in the sw US: Review and future research directions

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Research on social aspects of wildfire in the southwestern USA has continued to diversify and broaden in scope over time, but some foundational lines of inquiry (such as public support for prescribed fire) have become outdated while other areas of study (such as fire prevention) have not been explored at all. Opportunities to advance wildfire social science efforts in the Southwest are abundant and well positioned to inform social understandings in other regions and countries.

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Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission: Final report

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In the face of this national challenge, Congress took bipartisan action to establish the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission through the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The legislation charged the 50-member Commission with the ambitious task of creating policy recommendations to address nearly every facet of the wildfire crisis, including mitigation, management, and postfire rehabilitation and recovery. Recognizing the urgency of the crisis, the Commission was given just a single year to  conduct a sweeping review of the wildfire system and produce a comprehensive set of policy priorities.

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Ecological effects of pinyon-juniper removal in the western US: A synthesis of research Jan 2014-Mar 2021

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We found that there were large proportions of non-significant responses among all categories combined, with roughly half or more of all responses non-significant (48 percent for wildlife, 60 percent for vegetation-environmental), comparable to other recent systematic reviews of pinyon-juniper treatment effects. However, we also found that when there were significant responses, some important trends potentially emerged. Important undesirable outcomes included far more positive than negative responses of exotic grass and forb abundance among nearly all treatment types. Cutting treatments were also more likely to decrease biocrust cover and microbial activity. Potentially beneficial outcomes included mostly positive responses among sagebrush obligate species, including more positive than negative responses for mule deer and sage-grouse. Some treatment types (for example, mastication) also resulted in more positive than negative responses for native grasses and forbs (although, non-significant responses were the majority). We also highlighted many limitations of this review, including how responses often come from few studies, and how some response-treatment category combinations lack adequate response data. Moreover, the existing research is often insufficient to address many key questions about treatment effects, largely owing to short time-scales and limited spatial extents of observations, which do not match the size of treatments being implemented by land managers, nor capture long-term, post-treatment ecological dynamics. We also identify a lack of research that addresses key interactions that could undermine restoration objectives, including potential effects of climate change and grazing on post-treatment environments. Thus, we emphasize the importance of integrating these factors into future pinyon-juniper treatment research, and we stress the need for use of monitoring programs and research studies that partake in data collection and analysis over long durations and broad spatial scales.

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Future of America’s forest and rangelands: Forest Service 2020 Resources Planning Act Assessment

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The 2020 Resources Planning Act (RPA) Assessment summarizes findings about the status, trends, and projected future of the Nation’s forests and rangelands and the renewable resources that they provide. The 2020 RPA Assessment specifically focuses on the effects of both socioeconomic and climatic change on the U.S. land base, disturbance, forests, forest product markets, rangelands, water, biodiversity, and outdoor recreation. Differing assumptions about population and economic growth, land use change, and global climate change from 2020 to 2070 largely influence the outlook for U.S. renewable resources. Many of the key themes from the 2010 RPA Assessment cycle remain relevant, although new data and technologies allow for deeper and wider investigation. Land development will continue to threaten the integrity of forest and rangeland ecosystems. In addition, the combination and interaction of socioeconomic change, climate change, and the associated shifts in disturbances will strain natural resources and lead to increasing management and resource allocation challenges. At the same time, land management and adoption of conservation measures can reduce pressure on natural resources. The RPA Assessment findings and associated data can be useful to resource managers and policymakers as they develop strategies to sustain natural resources.

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Techniques for restoring damaged desert habitats

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We synthesized restoration techniques and their effectiveness in the Mojave and western Sonoran Desert, provide estimated costs of candidate techniques, and anticipate future research needs for effective restoration in changing climates and environments. Over 50 published studies in the Mojave and western Sonoran Desert demonstrate that restoration can improve soil features (e.g., biocrusts), increase cover of native perennial and annual plants, enhance native seed retention and seed banks, and reduce risk of fires to conserve mature shrubland habitat. We placed restoration techniques into three categories: restoration of site environments, revegetation, and management actions to limit further disturbance and encourage recovery. Within these categories, 11 major restoration techniques (and their variations) were evaluated by at least one published study and range from geomorphic (e.g., reestablishing natural topographic patterns) and abiotic structural treatments (e.g., vertical mulching) to active revegetation (e.g., outplanting, seeding).

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The scientific value of fire in wilderness

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Our systematic review returned a sample of 222 publications that met these criteria, with an increase in wilderness fire science over time. Studies largely occurred in the USA and were concentrated in a relatively small number of protected areas, particularly in the Northern Rocky Mountains. As a result, this sample of wilderness fire science is highly skewed toward areas of temperate mixed-conifer forests and historical mixed-severity fire regimes. Common principal subjects of publications included fire effects (44%), wilderness fire management (18%), or fire regimes (17%), and studies tended to focus on vegetation, disturbance, or wilderness management as response variables.

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