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Research: hotter, drier conditions limit Arizona forest recovery from wildfires

Alex Gonzalez

(Arizona News Connection) New research has found hotter and drier climate conditions are making it less likely for forests in Arizona and across the Western United States to recover after wildfires.

Marcos Robles, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy's Arizona chapter and co-author of the study, said forests across the West are what he calls "fire adapted." Robles explained forests have evolved with fire, but what is concerning is how fire behavior has intensified due to climate change, resulting in more trees being killed and fewer seedlings being available to help forest regeneration.

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© iStock - klenger

"What we are worried about is the trends of especially high-severity wildfires, which basically means most of the adult trees in a given area are killed in a wildfire, and the concern is that our forests provide so much for our communities," Robles pointed out.

Robles pointed out if forests are not able to regenerate, it will affect water supplies and the removal of greenhouse gases, which trees help capture from the atmosphere.

Robles noted forest thinning and prescribed burns in overgrown dry forests help reduce fire severity and subsequent tree death. He added effective forest management tools can make forests get back to "historic conditions" and lower the probability of damaging high-severity wildfires.

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© iStock - Toa55

Robles emphasized the federal government has allocated around $3 billion to fund ecological forest management and reforestation efforts across 50 million acres in the next 10 years throughout the West, and stressed the window of opportunity to take action is shrinking.

"There can be an enormous difference if we are able to use this funding to do these pre-wildfire treatments at a larger and larger scale," Robles stated. "We do have that opportunity available to us."

Robles acknowledged the most likely future under "status quo conditions" would be one in which more forests do not recover after high-intensity wildfires, but with federal, state and community investments in forest management and reforestation, the future can look more positive as the pace of change Western forests are experiencing is reduced.