Effects of Thinning and Similar Stand Treatments on Fire Behavior in Western Forests

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In the West, thinning and partial cuttings are being considered for treating millions of forested acres that are overstocked and prone to wildfire. The objectives of these treatments include tree growth redistribution, tree species regulation, timber harvest, wildlife habitat improvement, and wildfire-hazard reduction. Depending on the forest type and its structure, thinning has both positive and negative impacts on crown fire potential. Crown bulk density, surface fuel, and crown base height are primary stand characteristics that determine crown fire potential. Thinning from below, free thinning, and reserve tree shelterwoods have the greatest opportunity for reducing the risk of crown fire behavior. Selection thinning and crown thinning that maintain multiple crown layers, along with individual tree selection systems, will not reduce the risk of crown fires except in the driest ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Dougl. ex Laws.) forests. Moreover, unless the surface fuels created by using these treatments are themselves treated, intense surface wildfire may result, likely negating positive effects of reducing crown fire potential. No single thinning approach can be applied to reduce the risk of wildfires in the multiple forest types of the West. The best general approach for managing wildfire damage seems to be managing tree density and species composition with well-designed silvicultural systems at a landscape scale that includes a mix of thinning, surface fuel treatments, and prescribed fire with proactive treatment in areas with high risk to wildfire.


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