Prescribed Fire As a Means of Reducing Forest Carbon Emissions in the Western United States

Wiedinmyer, C. and Hurteau, M.D. | Environmental Science and Technology | 2010 | Peer Reviewed | Original research |


Carbon sequestration by forested ecosystems offers a potential climate change mitigation benefit. However, wildfire has the potential to reverse this benefit. In the western United States, climate change and land management practices have led to increases in wildfire intensity and size. One potential means of reducing carbon emissions from wildfire is the use of prescribed burning, which consumes less biomass and therefore releases less carbon to the atmosphere. This study uses a regional fire emissions model to estimate the potential reduction in fire emissions when prescribed burning is applied in dry, temperate forested systems of the western U.S. Daily carbon dioxide (CO2) fire emissions for 2001-2008 were calculated for the western U.S. for two cases: a default wildfire case and one in which prescribed burning was applied. Wide-scale prescribed fire application can reduce CO2 fire emissions for the western U.S. by 18-25% in the western U.S., and by as much as 60% in specific forest systems. Although this work does not address important considerations such as the feasibility of implementing wide-scale prescribed fire management or the cumulative emissions from repeated prescribed burning, it does provide constraints on potential carbon emission reductions when prescribed burning is used.