The diverse forest types of the southwestern US are inseparable from fire. Across climate zones in California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico, fire suppression has left many forest types out of sync with their historic fire regimes. As a result, high fuel loads place them at risk of severe fire, particularly as fire activity increases due to climate change. A legacy of fire exclusion coupled with a warming climate has led to increasingly large and severe wildfires in many southwest forest types. Climate change projections include an extended fire season length due to earlier snowmelt and a general drying trend due to rising temperatures. This suggests the future will be warmer and drier regardless of changes in precipitation. Hotter, drier conditions are likely to increase forest flammability, at least initially. Changes in climate alone have the potential to alter the distribution of vegetation types within the region, and climate-driven shifts in vegetation distribution are likely to be accelerated when coupled with stand-replacing fire. Regardless of the rate of change, the interaction of climate and fire and their effects on Southwest ecosystems will alter the provisioning of ecosystem services, including carbon storage and biodiversity. Interactions between climate, fire, and vegetation growth provide a source of great uncertainty in projecting future fire activity in the region, as post-fire forest recovery is strongly influenced by climate and subsequent fire frequency. Severe fire can be mitigated with fuels management including prescribed fire, thinning, and wildfire management, but new strategies are needed to ensure the effectiveness of treatments across landscapes. We review the current understanding of the relationship between fire and climate in the Southwest, both historical and projected. We then discuss the potential implications of climate change for fire management and examine the potential effects of climate change and fire on ecosystem services. We conclude with an assessment of the role of fire management in an increasingly flammable Southwest.
Additional publication details
Climate change, fire management, and ecological services in the southwestern US