Climate & Fire & Adaptation

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Climate change and western fires: A 3-part series from Ecological Applications

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Fire exclusion caused profound changes in many western North American forested landscapes, leaving them vulnerable to seasonal increases in drought and wildfire. As climate warms, the likelihood of severe, large-scale disturbance increases. There is generally strong agreement that wildfires, insects and disease are rapidly changing western landscapes and that the pace and scale of adaptive management is insufficient. However, confusion persists regarding the need for proactive management. In three articles, this Invited Feature evaluates the strength of scientific evidence regarding changing forest conditions, fire regimes, and science-based strategies for adapting western forests to climate change and future wildfires.

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Risky development: Increasing exposure to natural hazards in the US

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Our results show that 57% of structures (homes, schools, hospitals, office buildings, etc.) are located in hazard hotspots, which represent only a third of CONUS area, and ∼1.5 million buildings lie in hotspots for two or more hazards. These critical levels of exposure are the legacy of decades of sustained growth and point to our inability, lack of knowledge, or unwillingness to limit development in hazardous zones. Development in these areas is still growing more rapidly than the baseline rates for the nation, portending larger future losses even if the effects of climate change are not considered.

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How vulnerable are states to wildfire: A livelihood assessment

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We produce a framework needed to compute the livelihood vulnerability index (LVI) for the top 14 American States that are most exposed to wildfires, based on the 2019 Wildfire Risk report of the acreage size burnt in 2018 and 2019: Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The LVI is computed for each State by first considering the State’s exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity to wildfire events (known as the three contributing factors). These contributing factors are determined by a set of indictor variables (vulnerability metrics) that are categorized into corresponding major component groups. The framework structure is then justified by performing a principal component analysis (PCA) to ensure that each selected indicator variable corresponds to the correct contributing factor. The LVI for each State is then calculated based on a set of algorithms relating to our framework. LVI values rank between 0 (low LVI) to 1 (high LVI). Our results indicate that Arizona and New Mexico experience the greatest livelihood vulnerability, with an LVI of 0.57 and 0.55, respectively. In contrast, California, Florida, and Texas experience the least livelihood vulnerability to wildfires (0.44, 0.35, 0.33 respectively). LVI is strongly weighted on its contributing factors and is exemplified by the fact that even though California has one of the highest exposures and sensitivity to wildfires, it has very high adaptive capacity measures in place to withstand its livelihood vulnerability. Thus, States with relatively high wildfire exposure can exhibit relatively lower livelihood vulnerability because of adaptive capacity measures in place.

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Wildfire in the western US: Causes, consequences, and adaptation

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Description: A panel of experts will discuss why wildfires are on the rise, the role of climate change, the predicted fate of future forests, and ways that at-risk communities can adapt. Large fires are becoming more frequent and severe across the western US. Since 1984, annual burned forest area has increased by about 1,100%. Lives, property, and livelihoods are routinely threatened and burned landscapes can be left ecologically transformed. What is causing recent trends in fire activity? What will forests of the future look like? How can modeling wildfires and forest response guide adaptation strategies? These are among the questions to be explored. Panelists will also discuss the importance of tailoring fire and forest management to the local context, considering regionally specific factors like forest type, environmental conditions, and the presence of people.

Panelists: Forest ecologist Winslow Hansen (Cary Institute), Fire ecologist Phil Higuera (University of Montana), and Natural resource sociologist Catrin Edgeley (Northern Arizona University).

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Warming enabled upslope advance in western US forest fires

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Here, we focus on the elevational distribution of forest fires in mountainous ecoregions of the western United States and show the largest increase rates in burned area above 2,500 m during 1984 to 2017. Furthermore, we how that high-elevation fires advanced upslope with a median cumulative change of 252 m (−107 to 656 m; 95% CI) in 34 y across studied ecoregions. We also document a strong interannual relationship between high-elevation fires and warm season vapor pressure deficit (VPD). The upslope advance of fires is consistent with observed warming reflected by a median upslope drift of VPD isolines of 295 m (59 to 704 m; 95% CI) during 1984 to 2017. These findings allow us to estimate that recent climate trends reduced the high-elevation flammability barrier and enabled fires in an additional 11% of western forests. Limited influences of fire management practices and longer fire-return intervals in these montane mesic systems suggest these changes are largely a byproduct of climate warming. Further weakening in the high-elevation flammability barrier with continued warming has the potential to transform montane fire regimes with numerous implications for ecosystems and watersheds.

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Ecological risk assessment of managed relocation as a climate change adaptation strategy

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Description: Changing climate and introduced species are placing an increasing number of species at risk of extinction, fueling suggestions to protect species by relocating them to locations with more favorable biotic or climatic conditions. Managed relocation of species—also known as assisted dispersal or assisted migration—entails risks to both the organisms being moved and the recipient ecosystems. A recently published technical report, Ecological Risk Assessment of Managed Relocation as a Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (https://www.nps.gov/subjects/climatechange/managed-relocation.htm) and an accompanying worksheet describe risk-assessment protocols to help evaluate the ecological risks of species managed relocation as part of planning and decision making. The risk analysis process does not dictate a decision; rather, the protocols and accompanying spreadsheet seek to help a decision maker structure a process to inform decisions. The report includes four case study applications evaluating the ecological risks of managed relocation of bull trout, Karner blue butterfly, giant sequoia, and Pitcher’s thistle.

Presenters: MARK SCHWARTZ, UC-Davis, is a conservation scientist who works on a range of issues related to climate change, endangered species, and decision-making in natural resource management. He is professor emeritus in Environmental Science and Policy at UC Davis and the Editor-in-Chief of Conservation Science and Practice.

AVIV KARASOV-OLSON, UC-Davis, is a PhD candidate in ecology. Her research focuses on conservation, climate change, & collaborative management within social-ecological systems, particularly involving migratory waterfowl.

JESSICA HELLMANN, University of Minnesota, is a professor of Ecology, Evolution, & Behavior and executive director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.

SARAH SKIKNE, University of Minnesota, is a TNC NatureNet Fellow at UM’s Institute on the Environment. She focuses on strategies to promote species persistence and ecosystem integrity.

Forest fire behind a lake

Wildfire, fish, and water scarcity in Utah

Webinar registration with donation.

In-person tickets, $7.

Description: Utah has experienced several of the largest fires in state history in the past few years, leaving large scars in our forests and degrading air quality, fish habitat, and water resources. Why is the fire regime changing and what is it expected to look like in the future? What are the implications for Utah’s water? Patrick Belmont will explore these questions and discuss ways we could better manage our forests, fires, fish, and water resources to ensure better outcomes in the future.

Presenter: Patrick Belmont is a Professor and Head of the Department of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University. His research spans many disciplines…hydrology, ecology, fire science, erosion and climatology, in order to study watersheds as integrated systems. And he is constantly working to make science useful for policy and management.

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Wildfire, Weather, Water, Weeds, Wildlife Symposium

Symposium registration.

This Symposium will:

  • Examine agency/utility wildfire safety, mitigation measures and resiliency planning for future fire weather
  • Learn about research focused on wildfire effects on water quality (sediment, contaminants) and water supply in our region and how we can improve our practices
  • Discuss how forests, shrublands and rivers are recovering or being impacted by invasive plants and biodiversity loss
  • Understand how state and local agencies are preparing and responding to increased threat of wildfire

Who will attend?
Planning and Public Works Professionals, Water Resources Professionals, Land Managers Public Health Professionals, Local Business Leaders, Civil Engineers, Regulators, Land Managers, Researchers, Education and Extension Specialists, Public Health Professionals, Developers, Landscape Architects, Community Based Organizations, Academics, Students, and any and all other interested parties.

Fire Weather Wildlife Symposium logo

Wildfire, Weather, Water, Weeds, Wildlife Symposium

Symposium registration.

This Symposium will:

  • Examine agency/utility wildfire safety, mitigation measures and resiliency planning for future fire weather
  • Learn about research focused on wildfire effects on water quality (sediment, contaminants) and water supply in our region and how we can improve our practices
  • Discuss how forests, shrublands and rivers are recovering or being impacted by invasive plants and biodiversity loss
  • Understand how state and local agencies are preparing and responding to increased threat of wildfire

Who will attend?
Planning and Public Works Professionals, Water Resources Professionals, Land Managers Public Health Professionals, Local Business Leaders, Civil Engineers, Regulators, Land Managers, Researchers, Education and Extension Specialists, Public Health Professionals, Developers, Landscape Architects, Community Based Organizations, Academics, Students, and any and all other interested parties.

Fire Weather Wildlife Symposium logo

Wildfire, Weather, Water, Weeds, Wildlife Symposium

Symposium registration.

This Symposium will:

  • Examine agency/utility wildfire safety, mitigation measures and resiliency planning for future fire weather
  • Learn about research focused on wildfire effects on water quality (sediment, contaminants) and water supply in our region and how we can improve our practices
  • Discuss how forests, shrublands and rivers are recovering or being impacted by invasive plants and biodiversity loss
  • Understand how state and local agencies are preparing and responding to increased threat of wildfire

Who will attend?
Planning and Public Works Professionals, Water Resources Professionals, Land Managers Public Health Professionals, Local Business Leaders, Civil Engineers, Regulators, Land Managers, Researchers, Education and Extension Specialists, Public Health Professionals, Developers, Landscape Architects, Community Based Organizations, Academics, Students, and any and all other interested parties.

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