Identifying opportunity hot spots for reducing wildfire-caused carbon loss in western US conifer forests

In the United States (US), federal agencies recently received unprecedented funding to reduce wildfire hazard in western conifer forests – creating opportunities to address the growing climate and wildfire crises. By proactively reducing wildfire hazard with pre-wildfire treatments (e.g. forest thinning, prescribed fire, cultural burning), collective efforts by western communities (e.g. federal agencies, tribes, and state agencies) can reduce the risk of wildfire-carbon loss carbon in living forest vegetation and organic soil. In turn, forests maintain carbon sequestration and storage, which helps humans achieve climate-mitigation goals by keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. Although recent US initiatives like the Wildfire Crisis Strategy emphasized how reducing wildfire hazard maintains carbon sequestration and storage, initial landscape investments only considered locations where pre-wildfire treatments would protect human communities from wildfire. Now the US needs additional science-based information to identify locations where investments could reduce the risk of wildfire-caused carbon loss. To estimate risk, we used a conceptual framework to evaluate interactions among wildfire hazard and carbon exposure and vulnerability. By evaluating where high social adaptive capacity for pre-wildfire treatments overlapped with the most vulnerable carbon, we identified “opportunity hot spots” at the fireshed-level that humans could prioritize and treat to reduce the greatest risk of wildfire-caused carbon loss. We then compared our findings to high-risk firesheds in the Wildfire Crisis Strategy – highlighting where reducing wildfire hazard could simultaneously mitigate the greatest risk from wildfire to carbon and human communities. Importantly, the conceptual framework is generalizable and applicable for other values-at-risk including municipal watersheds, air quality, and wildlife habitat.