Study: Managed Wildfires a Mixed Success for Ponderosa Pine Forests

Jan 31, 2017

The U.S. Forest Service allowed fire to burn more than 73,500 acres in northern Arizona last year. New research examines how well these “managed wildfires” restore healthy, historic conditions to ponderosa pine forests.  

Credit Tom Brown, USFS Coconino National Forest

Scientists with Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute examined 10 large burned areas on the Coconino and Kaibab national forests. Ecologist David Huffman says managers allowed these areas to burn during the last decade to meet multiple restoration goals.

“Wildfire is difficult to control and manage for precise effects—sort of a blunt tool,” he says. “So we need to understand what it’s doing out there in terms of changing forest structure.”

The study found moderate-severity fires met two-thirds of the restoration goals. This was the only type of fire that restored tree density and canopy cover to historic conditions.

But moderate-severity fires only covered 12 percent of the landscape studied. Most of the landscape burned with low-severity fires. Huffman says these fires are not as effective, but there’s less risk they’ll get out of control.

The study was funded by the U.S. Forest Service. The paper appears in the journal Forest Ecology and Management.