USDA Forest Service

Pacific Southwest Research Station

Pacific Southwest
Research Station

800 Buchanan Street
Albany, CA 94710-0011
(510) 883-8830
United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. USDA logo which links to the department's national site. Forest Service logo which links to the agency's national site.

Research Topics Fire Science

Recovery: Post-wildfire management

Fire is indispensable to maintaining the health and productivity of most forests in the Sierra Nevada, Southern Cascades, Klamath-Siskiyou ecosystems and other conifer forests of the western US. Fires rejuvenate both terrestrial and aquatic systems by restructuring habitat and increasing the availability of light, water, and nutrients in ways that benefit many herbs, shrubs, and animals. Recurring fires also reduce forest fuels and enable early successional trees including sugar pines, ponderosa pine, and California black oak to establish and thrive.

Fire is so important in the Sierra Nevada that it can be seen as medicine for ailing forests that have not had the necessary dose; however, as with most medicines, not having enough or taking too large a dose can be harmful. Fire exclusion and timber harvest practices over the last 100 years have resulted in significant changes in the structure and composition of many western coniferous forests. As a consequence, current forests are often much denser and less resilient to drought, insects and disease, and wildfire.

Wildfires that are unusually large, complex, and resistant to control like the recent Rim Fire and King Fire have produced uncharacteristically extensive area of high severity fire. High severity fires can transform forest into extensive shrub fields that persist for decades or even centuries, without some management intervention. Patches of dead trees may be so large that dispersal of seeds of coniferous trees into burned areas is low to non-existant, limiting the capacity of the forest to reestablish.

The management of a forest ecosystem after large and intense fire elicits many critical questions; e.g., how do different wildlife species respond, how do riparian systems recover, what are the ecological effects of varying levels of salvage treatments, what sort of fuels hazards remain, what management strategies can effectively control hillslope erosion and how are valued natural and cultural resources affected?

Land managers have many concerns to consider following a wildfire. The following research topics introduce some of the science behind the disturbances to the landscape caused by post-fire erosion, the positive and negative impacts of cutting trees after a wildfire, and considerations for the long-term recovery of the landscape.