Will wildfires extinguish the rebirth of forests?

Orange and red fires burns up from browning green grass below under a smokey blue sky.

(Matthias Fischer/Pixabay)

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Natural Disasters

The stunning sight of a large plume of smoke billowing on the edge of Jonathan Coop’s northern New Mexico childhood home is vividly etched in the then-4-year-old’s memory. And when his eyes scanned the horizon to the ground beneath him, there were bits and pieces of ash scattered across his yard. This memory ignited a lifelong fascination with the fires. 

Wildfires ravaged New Mexico and other western states in the 1970s to the point that Coop characterized the burning as “one of the more extreme” fires of its time. Hard to believe, but since then, the fires have only grown worse. Coop watched as fires continued throughout his adolescence. Each time a forest burned, it was changed forever. As he entered adulthood, Coop wanted to understand why. Eventually, the worsening fires caused more severe forest changes, forever altering the landscape around him. There was never doubt about the career path Coop took. Rather, only a nagging question about the wildfires: ‘What can we do about it?’ 

That’s what Coop is pursuing now as a professor at Western Colorado University within the biology department and the School of Environment and Sustainability, where he is researching wildfires and their nature. After growing up in the fire-sensitive Southwest, he aims to discover how forests rebound from the ongoing and escalating destruction of wildfires.

Wildfire activity is growing in extremity and severity as climate change continues to warm the planet. In February, the United Nations Environment Programme published a report warning of an increase in “extraordinary” wildfires and a “global wildfire crisis.” The UNEP predicts that by 2030, global wildfires will increase by 14%, and will reach a 50% increase by 2100. The report also prodded governments to redirect their spending towards a “Fire Ready Formula,” which encourages “two-thirds of spending devoted to planning, prevention, preparedness, and recovery, with one-third left for response.” 

Coop’s recently published study, “Extreme fire spread events and area burned under recent and future climate in the western USA,” aims to help predict future wildfire extremity, which in turn, could support the preparation the UNEP recommended. 

The study, published in April, confirmed that “exceptional” wildfire seasons will become more likely in the future, and that future wildfire extremes are “predicted to exceed anything yet witnessed.” The researchers discovered that rare, single-day extreme fire events are massive contributors to overall fire effects and destruction.

In 2020, the western United States experienced several severe wildfires that made for an unforgettable year of destruction. In California alone, more than 4.2 million acres were burned — approximately 4% of the state’s land, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). About 10,000 fires burned over the course of the year, and CAL FIRE determined 2020 to be the largest wildfire season recorded in modern California history. If fires continue to grow more intense, as the research predicts, finding a solution for containment is vital. 

“These very rare events that can happen very quickly have outsized impacts,” explained Coop. “We found that just like the top 1% of single-day burning events, accounts for over 20% of the total area burned. So just those very few extreme fire runs have this huge disproportionate effect, in terms of setting trends of how much area burns every year.”

It’s important to understand the role that climate change has in igniting these fires. Fire thrives on hot and dry atmospheres, and as the globe continues to grow hotter and drier, it becomes easier for fires to start and spread. This concept seems logical; however, there are detrimental cascading climate implications that scientists are grappling with, such as declining forest resilience, because of the destruction. Coop pointed out some irony — scientists in the past have often used forest regrowth as an example of resilience in nature. 

“There’s kind of been this historical, let’s say, scientific paradigm, that a forest burns down a fire, and then it grows back … That sort of example, ecological scenario is… almost like the textbook study of resilience,” Coop said. 

However, Coop said, fires are growing more severe and may be beyond the capability of other species to adapt and respond to the increasing extremity. 

“There’s a lot of reason to think, ‘wow, these forests may not be able to withstand the kinds of changes that they’re experiencing’,” Coop said.

Other researchers studying the rebirth of forests also found similar grim outlooks for areas struck by severe wildfires. But even more alarming – there may be fewer trees that reroot in the scorched paths of wildfires, an implication that could further fuel climate change.  

Retired firefighter turned scientist Camille Stevens-Rumann was also drawn to the after effects of wildfires. As an assistant professor in the Forest and Rangeland Stewardship department at Colorado State University and assistant director for the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, she studied forest resilience and authored the 2017 study, “Evidence for declining forest resilience to wildfires under climate change.” Her work surveyed several generations of forests’ regrowth and resilience using data from tree seedling presence and density. She discovered significant decreases in post-fire tree regeneration in the 21st century, which corresponded with higher annual moisture deficits than in previous generations. 

In other words, there are fewer opportunities for trees to survive in the post-fire environment, aligning with the research conducted by Coop.

An important implication of declining resilience is that there will be fewer trees, Stevens-Rumann said. This fact has atmospheric consequences — less trees means more carbon in our atmosphere — as well as aesthetic consequences. 

“I think the big concern is that we all love trees, and we love them for a lot of reasons. You know, we love them for the carbon that they sequester, which can impact how much carbon is in the atmosphere,” said Stevens-Rumann. “We love them because they’re big and beautiful, and feel, you know, make us feel small sometimes. And they feel majestic.”

Despite the seemingly inescapability of the wildfires Stevens-Rumann said we are actually in a fire deficit in the United States. 

“We haven’t allowed fires to burn, for the most part, for the last 100 years. And even today, when you see those big wildfires on the news and things like that, that’s only like 2% of the wildfires that start— the other 98% are effectively put out,” Stevens-Rumann explained. “We’re in a crisis, in part, because we try to stop them so much.”

A natural solution Stevens-Rumann suggested is to allow less intense, more manageable fires to burn across more acres instead of immediately putting them out. This practice might help the forests retain their resilience, similar to building stamina when exercising, which in turn could help forests rebound faster.

Prescribed fire is another way fires can be allowed to burn in a controlled environment. Prescribed fires are man-made fires that are created to make burning more manageable by reducing the fuels that might ignite fires later on. However, according to Coop and Stevens-Rumann, these fires do come with a level of risk and limitation.  

“It’s a really big question like, what we should do to prepare for those from the community level up to that landscape management level? And what kinds of strategies are the most likely to protect us and protect the ecosystems and the watersheds that we depend on?” said Coop. 

Protecting and informing the community is an important driver of wildfire research and management. For the average person, experiencing a wildfire is a frightening experience, especially for visitors and new residents who are unfamiliar with the atmosphere and frequency of the fires. Ally Chadha, a rising junior at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., evacuated last year when a wildfire burned within 15 minutes of her campus. 

“You could very clearly see smoke from all of the campus buildings,” Chadha said. “I was back in my apartment building, and I could smell smoke coming in through the vents.”

When her parents urged her to evacuate, Chadha, a Connecticut native, escaped to nearby relatives where she sheltered for a few days. 

“It was definitely scary,” Chadha said, although no one around her took it as seriously.

She said that there’s not a major sense of precaution around wildfires amongst her own circle, and that people tend to “follow the herd” when reacting to fires. 

“It feels kind of normal, almost. Obviously, it’s not good to be smelling smoke through the vents, but there’s fires pretty regularly,” Chadha said. “There’s not really much that I feel like people think they could do anyways.”

While the attitudes around wildfires in Chadha’s circle have become normalized, Coop and Stevens-Rumann are sounding the alarm as to why they are not to be taken lightly. Scientists are continuing research to figure out the best ways to protect the community as well as what kinds of environments have stifled larger fires from happening. Further solutions for protecting our communities are still in progress, but the scientists are racing the pace of climate change to discover the answers. 

“Future extremes of wildfire are going to be far beyond anything we’ve seen so far,” Coop said. “We need to really prepare ourselves.”

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