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Frequency of disturbance mitigates high-severity fire in the Lake Tahoe Basin, California and Nevada

Charles Maxwell, Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University
Robert M. Scheller, Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University
Jonathan W Long, USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station, Davis, California
Patricia Manley, USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station, Placerville, California


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Because of past land use changes and changing climate, forests are moving outside of their historical range of variation. As fires become more severe, forest managers are searching for strategies that can restore forest health and reduce fire risk. However, management activities are only one part of a suite of disturbance vectors that shape forest conditions. To account for the range of disturbance intensities and disturbance types (wildfire, bark beetles, and management), we developed a disturbance return interval (DRI) that represents the average return period for any disturbance, human or natural. We applied the DRI to examine forest change in the Lake Tahoe Basin of California and Nevada. We specifically investigated the consequences of DRI on the proportion of high-severity fire and the net sequestration of carbon. In order to test the management component of the DRI, we developed management scenarios with forest managers and stakeholders in the region; these scenarios were integrated into a mechanistic forest landscape model that also accounted for climate change, as well as natural disturbances of wildfire and insect outbreaks. Our results suggest increasing the frequency of disturbances (a lower DRI) would reduce the percentage of high-severity fire on landscape but not the total amount of wildfire in general. However, a higher DRI reduced carbon storage and sequestration, particularly in management strategies that emphasized prescribed fire over hand or mechanical fuel treatments.

Key words

carbon sequestration; disturbance return interval; forest management; high-severity fire

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087