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Pros and Cons of Fuel Treatments Versus Periodic Wildfire Determined

Photo of A prescribed burn such as this one emits a relatively small carbon pulse. Roger Ottmar, USDA Forest ServiceA prescribed burn such as this one emits a relatively small carbon pulse. Roger Ottmar, USDA Forest ServiceSnapshot : Hazardous fuel treatments in dry Western forests generally reduce carbon storage over time compared to periodic wildfires, but the treatments ensure smaller pulses of episodic carbon emissions while reducing the potential for large crown fires.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Peterson, David W. 
Research Location : Western U.S.
Research Station : Pacific Northwest Research Station (PNW)
Year : 2013
Highlight ID : 518

Summary

Hazardous fuel treatments in dry Western forests generally reduce carbon storage over time compared to periodic wildfires, but the treatments ensure smaller pulses of episodic carbon emissions while reducing the potential for large crown fires. This is a key finding from a comprehensive literature synthesis that analyzed how different types of fuel treatments affect carbon dynamics across a broad range of forest ecosystems. In general, small but regular pulses of carbon emissions from fuel treatments result in lower overall carbon storage than no treatments with or without wildfire. Type of treatment, periodicity of treatment, assumptions about carbon emissions, and specific forest type all affect long-term carbon storage relative to the effects of no treatment and periodic wildfires. Periodic - every 20 to 40 years - hazardous fuel treatments result in lower forest carbon storage compared to no treatment; however, a regular treatment schedule ensures that carbon emissions over time are small and predictable compared to emissions caused by wildfire. Methods and assumptions used to calculate carbon budgets can have a significant effect on inferences about the effects of management actions.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest
  • Pacific Northwest Region
  • University of Washington

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