New study shows Arizona is one of most at-risk states for wildfire-caused carbon loss

When a wildfire hits an unmanaged forest, more trees burn, few come back and more carbon is released into the atmosphere over time.
Published: Sep. 7, 2023 at 4:44 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - With the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world, northern Arizona is no stranger to wildfires. However, a new study by The Nature Conservancy in Arizona and Oregon, The University of Montana and the USDA Forest Service shows Arizona also has some of the largest carbon emissions when fires spark and lingering effects on the climate. Trees not only produce oxygen, but they also capture carbon. So when a wildfire hits an unmanaged forest, more trees burn, few regrow, and more carbon is released into the atmosphere over time.

Travis Woolley is a forest and fire ecologist for The Nature Conservancy who helped write the study. “It started with carbon, just because of the climate connection and how it’s really tied to wildfire, and these continual cycles we see of large, severe fires across these forests,” he explained. “We have lots of forests with carbon that’s been sequestered over time and stored in those forests. The real likely hold of large impactful wildfires are really high here.”

The study points to the need for more proactive forest management, like prescribed burns and thinning, which might sound counterintuitive. However, a properly managed forest allows more stream flow, which helps reduce fire intensity and can also increase tree growth by 30%. So when wildfires do hit, they are easier to contain, while healthier, older trees are spared and can continue to store more carbon. “Where we could feasibly go in and thin the forest, apply prescribed burning and really help restore those structures and processes that help keep our forests at lower risk from fire,” Woolley said.

The study includes areas where this work can be done that protect both the public and the environment from wildfires. “If we can prioritize based on the values we have in those forests, we can actually do a better job at getting ahead of that problem,” Woolley added. They are now looking at other factors that can contribute to reducing wildfire risk, like biodiversity and water in our forests, so that information can be used by the federal government to prioritize where the work needs to be done.

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