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Stanford Woods Institute Director Discusses Western Wildfire Risks and Impacts at Harvard Forest Talk

The Harvard Forest is a department of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that is located in Petersham, Massachusetts.
The Harvard Forest is a department of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that is located in Petersham, Massachusetts. By Julian J. Giordano
By Elizabeth Peng and Samantha D. Wu, Contributing Writers

Chris B. Field ’75, the director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, discussed changes in wildfire risk on the West Coast at a Friday lecture.

The Harvard Forest and the Harvard University Center for the Environment hosted the lecture, titled “The Changing Landscape of Western Wildfire Risk,” at Harvard Forest Fisher Museum. The talk focused on the ecological and economic impacts of wildfires on the West Coast.

Field said climate change has been “imposing a pressure for ecosystems to keep up with the temperature changes.” Research shows that the rates of movement of tree ranges are small compared to the overall changes undergone by climate zones.

“It begs the question of whether we’re already seeing situations in which forest ecosystems are essentially being left behind, that climate zones to which they’re adapted over the long range have shifted, and trees may not have been able to keep up,” Field said.

In addition to impacts on the ecosystem, wildfires may also cause greater rates of economic inequality, which can be “really consequential.”

The research Field presented revealed that buyers were less likely to purchase homes in areas with high wildfire risk. This led higher income properties in high fire hazard areas to experience lower property appreciation rates, a phenomenon that has resulted in $165 million in lost value over the past decade.

Wildfires are a prevalent issue in western America because the region’s geography leads to more flammable conditions, said Jonathan R. Thompson, research director and senior ecologist at Harvard Forest, in an interview Friday.

In the northeast, forests are typically cooler and more humid. The presence of moisture in the air decreases the likelihood of fire but presents a unique set of ecological challenges to the region, namely hurricanes, insects, and pathogens.

“There are occasional fires in the east,” Thompson said. “But it’s just not as much of a dominant agent of change in the Massachusetts ecosystem as compared to all of the Rocky Mountains and west of there.”

Thompson touched on current practices and novel technologies to manage wildfire risk. One such practice is prescribed burning, or the intentional burning of parts of the forest landscape during seasons when the fires are controllable.

Forest managers also thin and mechanically remove the fuels from small woods in a process called fuels treatment so that groves burn with less severity.

The efficacy of these procedures is limited by an element of uncertainty about where wildfires will occur. Modern wildfire control includes spatial simulation models, remote sensing, and LiDAR to map fuels on the ground and predict where fuel treatments will have the highest probability of preventing future fires.

Field also answered an audience question about people who lack the economic resources to relocate to areas with lower fire risk.

“This is going to be one of those cases where it’s really hard to see a path forward that doesn’t involve a more active government role,” Field said.

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EnvironmentSustainability