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The Mountain West News Bureau is a collaboration between Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, KUNR in Nevada, Nevada Public Radio, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana and Wyoming Public Media, with support from affiliate stations across the region.

Long term study finds combination of prescribed burns, thinning effective at reducing wildfire risk

A firefighter holds a fuel canister as a prescribed fire burns in the background.
DOI/Neal Herbert
Bureau of Land Management
A Bureau of Land Management firefighter ignites areas of heavy, downed juniper jackpots during the 2019 Trout Springs Prescribed Burn in Owyhee County, Idaho.

Prescribed fire and mechanical thinning are often used to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, and achieve other ecosystem goals. There’s been relatively little research on their long term effectiveness, but a new study looks at those impacts over two decades.

The University of Montana’s Lubrecht Experimental Forest is a ponderosa pine-dominated landscape adapted to regular, low-intensity wildfires – similar to many across the West . It’s also one of a handful of sites where these treatments have been closely studied for years as a part of the National Fire and Fire Surrogates project.

The study concluded that – if a fire were to occur now – “the thinning (and) prescribed fire treatment would likely have the lowest intensity fire and highest tree survival and stable carbon stocks.”

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“This study is one of a number of studies that say if we use prescribed burning and with thinning, then we can maintain a stable group of large, fire tolerant trees,” said Justin Crotteau, a Forest Service research forester who was one of the authors.

An unplanned - and at first nerve-wracking - mountain pine beetle outbreak presented an opportunity to study how those treatments also affected infestations.

“We were worried at first that it was going to ruin the study,” said lead author Sharon Hood, a Forest Service research ecologist.

But as with fires, the treatment combination also increased trees’ ability to withstand the beetles.

“By doing these proactive forest management treatments, we're able to increase forest resilience to a variety of disturbances,” Hood said.

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But after two decades, the protective effects are waning, and Crotteau said they’re hoping to do a new round of burning soon.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.