Restoring surface fire stabilizes forest carbon under extreme fire weather in the Sierra Nevada
Climate change in the western United States has increased the frequency of extreme fire weather events and is projected to increase the area burned by wildfire in the coming decades. This changing fire regime, coupled with increased high-severity fire risk from a legacy of fire exclusion, could destabilize forest carbon (C), decrease net ecosystem exchange (NEE), and consequently reduce the ability of forests to regulate climate through C sequestration. While management options for minimizing the risk of high-severity fire exist, little is known about the longer-term carbon consequences of these actions in the context of continued extreme fire weather events. Our goal was to compare the impacts of extreme wildfire events on carbon stocks and fluxes in a watershed in the Sierra National Forest. We ran simulations to model wildfire under contemporary and extreme fire weather conditions, and test how three management scenarios (no-management, thin-only, thin and maintenance burning) influence fire severity, forest C stocks and fluxes, and wildfire C emissions. We found that the effects of treatment on wildfire under contemporary fire weather were minimal, and management conferred neither significant reduction in fire severity nor increases in C stocks. However, under extreme fire weather, the thin and maintenance burning scenario decreased mean fire severity by 25%, showed significantly greater C stability, and unlike the no management and thin-only management options, the thin and maintenance burning scenario showed no decrease in NEE relative to the contemporary fire weather scenarios. Further, under extreme fire weather conditions, wildfire C emissions were lowest in the thin and maintenance burning scenario, (reduction of 13.7 Mg C/ha over the simulation period) even when taking into account the C costs associated with prescribed burning. Including prescribed burning in thinning operations may be critical to maintaining C stocks and reducing C emissions in the future where extreme fire weather events are more frequent.