By Elizabeth L. Harrison, UM News Service
MISSOULA – As a scientist, Jamie Peeler spent 10 years examining forest-fire dynamics on landscapes adapted to wildfire from South Africa to Florida and across the Pacific Northwest.
But it wasn’t until 2021, when she became The Nature Conservancy NatureNet Science Fellow in the PaleoEcology and Fire Ecology Lab at the University of Montana, that she felt her work was truly making a meaningful impact.
“With climate change and the wildfire crisis escalating in the last decade, my hope is that this is my small way of contributing to adjusting those crises,” said Peeler, a postdoctoral scholar. “It’s the most applied work I’ve done since doing research.”
As the climate and wildfire crises have intensified, so have concerns regarding the loss of carbon stored in forests from decades to centuries of tree growth. Peeler and other UM researchers have studied where to optimize ongoing wildfire mitigation efforts and reduce carbon loss due to wildfire, benefitting communities and climate at the same time.
During a wildfire, most carbon loss occurs when litter, duff and downed woody material is consumed by the fire. But over time trees killed during a fire decompose, producing another source of carbon loss. The study identifies locations where communities and agencies can consider implementing proactive forest management to reduce negative impacts from wildfires, including carbon loss.
Peeler’s study recently was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. It highlights widespread “opportunity hot spots” in the western U.S. for using proactive forest management – such as forest thinning, prescribed fire and cultural burning – to reduce the risk of losing carbon to future wildfires.
The study is a collaboration among UM, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service. Researchers evaluated where living trees and the carbon they store are at risk of burning in the future. They then compared these areas to areas highlighted in the Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy, identifying where human communities are most vulnerable to wildfire. Areas of overlap highlight “opportunity hot spots” where action can reduce the risk from wildfire to both carbon and communities.
“Our approach can help land management agencies plan where to invest in proactive forest treatments that simultaneously reduce wildfire-caused carbon loss and protect communities from wildfire,” Peeler said. “It also could be applied to reduce risk from wildfire to other important values such as municipal water, culturally important plants, recreation and wildlife habitat.”
Congress recently passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which includes a “wildfire crisis strategy” to dramatically increase the pace of forest restoration across the West. The plan includes unprecedented levels of funding ($3 billion dollars) from the federal government to reduce fuels in fire-adapted forests across 50 million acres in the next 10 years, which is at least two times more than current rates.
“As a fire ecologist, it’s an exciting time working on this topic, with billions of dollars dedicated to proactive forest treatments in the western U.S.,” Peeler said. “It’s a historic chance for science to drive where this money will be delegated.”
A big objective of the project was to prioritize where treatments would get the biggest bang for the buck in terms of carbon.
Proactive forest management can reduce the number of trees killed in wildfires by reducing excess fuels, reducing the negative impacts of a century of fire suppression and global warming. It also can keep more living trees on the landscape after wildfire, where they continue to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere and provide seeds for future forests.
“The message we want to emphasize is that we don’t have to choose between people and climate when we decide where we want to prioritize spending this money,” Peeler said.
The Conversation published an article by Peeler on this topic. The Nature Conservancy also published a news release on protecting communities and carbon from forest fires.