WWETAC Projects

Project Title: Application of wildfire risk analysis to examine carbon flux from fuel treatments

Principal Investigators: Alan A. Ager, Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center; Jim Cathcart, Oregon Department of Forestry


Collaborators: Mark A. Finney, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station; Andrew McMahan, USDA Forest Service, Forest Health Technology Enterprise Team; Fremont-Winema National Forest

Key Issues/Problems Addressed:

Severe forest fires often emit large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) that contribute to increasing global greenhouse gas emissions. While fuel treatments may help reduce wildfire carbon emissions by decreasing potential fire severity, a methodology is needed to determine expected landscape-scale carbon dioxide emission offsets or net changes from fuels management.

Setting and Approach:

Landscape simulation modeling was used to examine whether fuel treatments result in a potential net reduction in carbon emissions from reduced probability of severe wildfire. The study landscape was the 169,200-acre Drews Creek watershed located in south-central Oregon which contains dry ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and mixed conifer forests. Burn probability modeling simulated extreme weather and fuel moisture conditions. Expected carbon stocks were calculated for all stands after a simulated wildfire on treated and untreated landscapes.

Key Findings:

  • Study results show a negative carbon offset, or a net loss of carbon to the atmosphere from fuel treatments immediately after treatment: the known reduction of carbon stocks from treatment is greater than the expected carbon benefit from reduced wildfire emissions. A fuel treatment may become a positive carbon offset after nine years as trees grow.
  • Fuel treatments are more likely to be carbon-neutral (no net change) than to provide significant emissions benefits.
  • Across a landscape, the loss of carbon from fuel treatments is confined to the treatment areas while potential carbon benefits exist outside the treatment areas from reduced wildfire risk.
  • The findings represent a point in time estimate of fuel treatment effects on CO2 emissions because forests continually change through natural growth


A risk framework is presented that considers spatially explicit burn probabilities and landscape effects of fuel treatments to assess the potential effects on carbon emissions.  A risk framework projects fire behavior and its effects and consequences on values over space and time based on fire management strategies and tactics.


Ager, A.A., Finney, M.A., McMahan, A., Cathcart, J.  2010.  Measuring the effect of fuel treatments on forest carbon using landscape risk analysis. 2010.  Natural Hazards and Earth Systems Science 10, 2515–2526. (PDF, 3.58 MB)

Cathcart, J., A. A. Ager, M. McMahan, M.Finney, and B. Watt. 2010. Carbon benefits from fuel treatments. In: Jain, Theresa B.; Graham, Russell T.; and Sandquist, Jonathan, tech. eds. Integrated management of carbon sequestration and biomass utilization opportunities in a changing climate: Proceedings of the 2009 National Silviculture Workshop; June 15-18; Boise, ID. RMRS-P-61, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Ft. Collins, CO (PDF, 1.6 MB)

WWETAC Project ID: FY08AA54