Ponderosa pines and the shrub steppe of the Methow Valley of Washington State are iconic elements of what people may describe as their ‘sense of place.’ These are both fire adapted ecosystems, so they survive fire well, and to some extent may need fire in order to persist in the long term. But how resilient are these systems in the face of a changing climate? We don’t yet fully know.

Changing climate patterns have led to periodic drought, extreme heat waves, decreased snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt in the Methow. Combined, all these changes lead to drier landscapes in some years, and this can lead to larger, more intense, and longer-lasting wildfires. We don’t yet know how resilient plants and animals may be to these changes, or how well they can recover from fire.

At PBI, we’ve been studying the resilience and recovery of wildlife and vegetation in the Methow Valley after an extreme wildfire, the Carlton Complex Fire, in 2014. Two years after this major fire, wildlife were present and active throughout much of the burned area. Overall, vegetation has recovered well throughout the burned area, but conifers have produced few seedlings in many areas. The success of seedlings in getting established depends on how close living trees are. The absence of conifer seedlings in some areas where many trees were killed led us to conclude, at least preliminarily, that severe fire followed by extreme heat and drought may cause the ponderosa pine forests to shrink. With a contraction of habitat, reduction in wildlife populations dependent on these forests may follow.

If we can continue to monitor the recovery of wildlife and vegetation following this fire, we will better understand long-term responses to large-scale fires, and be able to support land management decisions.

– Kristina Bartowitz, Peter Morrison and Phoebe Barnard