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Montana news about the environment, natural resources, wildlife, climate change and more.

Study shows that changing how fires burn could help forests recover faster

Experts say low-grade controlled burns are a crucial tool to limit extreme fires on millions of acres in the Western U.S.
National Park Service
Experts say low-grade controlled burns are a crucial tool to limit extreme fires on millions of acres in the Western U.S.

As wildfires in the American West grow more destructive of homes and forests, a new study shows that changing the way fires burn could help forests recover.

More than 50 fire ecologists, including a dozen with ties to the University of Montana, collaborated on the research, collecting data from more than 10,000 locations and hundreds of wildfires for the study. They concluded that increasingly intense wildfires and a warmer, drier climate make it more difficult for coniferous forests to grow back.

Kimberley Davis led the study as a research ecologist at the University.

“This really gives us the best picture that we’ve had, to-date, of what’s happening in our forests after wildfire, in terms of trees coming back and starting to grow again or not,” Davis said in a phone interview.

Davis also says many pine trees have defenses like thick bark to protect seeds from burning up during a wildfire. In a less-severe fire that burns mostly undergrowth, those seeds can release from their cones to begin regrowth in the aftermath. But hotter, more intense fires can kill a tree and its seeds outright. Drier climate conditions and a lack of shade trees can prevent surviving seeds from taking root.

From 1980 to 2000, the researchers found nearly all studied areas in the west had climate conditions suited for forest regrowth. By 2050, that area could decrease by almost a quarter.

The report indicates that controlled burning, forest thinning and cultural burning done by Indigenous groups could all reduce the severity of future fires and improve the odds of forest recovery. Davis says urgent action is needed to offset the environmental changes of a warming planet, but adds that not all forests are in danger of losing their potential to regenerate.

Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

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