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Study: Conifer forests struggle to regrow after wildfires

A hilly area is covered with the stumps of burned trees
Kimberly Davis
Very few regenerating conifers were found 17 years post-fire at this site on the Helena National Forest, Montana.

A new study shows conifer forests in the West are struggling to regrow after wildfires. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, the researchers say forest management practices can help.

Researchers looked at the aftermath of hundreds of burned areas throughout the West from the 1980s to today.

Kyle Rodman of Northern Arizona University is one of the study’s authors. "One thing that that a lot of us have been noticing is just a lack of sufficient recovery in fires that have happened in the Southwestern US and other parts of the West," he says.

That’s due to more severe fires and to the warmer, drier conditions brought on by climate change. The researchers project about a quarter of the study area is unlikely to be able to regrow conifers by mid-century.

Marcos Robles is a scientist for The Nature Conservancy. "The biggest predictor that came out of whether forests recover or not is how intensely, or how severely, fires burn…. And the reason that’s so important is that forest managers… can actually change fire severity through their management choices."

Robles says thinning and prescribed or managed burns can help reduce the severity of wildfires in ponderosa pine forests, while other types of forests may need re-vegetation efforts.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.