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Despite Rise in Pacific Northwest Fires, Critical Unburned Areas Remain

February 12, 2018

While increased fire activity has threatened Pacific Northwest forests, University of Idaho researchers have found a silver-lining: the proportion of unburned areas critical for post-fire recovery has remained unchanged. 

Arjan Meddens and Crystal Kolden, faculty in the College of Natural Resources, led a team that analyzed nearly 2,300 fires in the Inland Northwest over a 30-year period, from 1984-2014. They examined trends in the formation of unburned islands of vegetation during wildfires in a new study published in the journal  today. 

The Northwest has seen greater fire activity in recent years, with more fires and larger areas burned,due to warming climate, fire exclusion and land cover changes. Yet, the researchers found that the amount of unburned forest located inside the fire perimeter, also known as “fire refugia,” has kept pace.

“From a conservation perspective, fire refugia are important to maintaining biodiversity, seed sources and overall landscape heterogeneity,” said Meddens, a research assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Society. “These areas will likely play a critical role when it comes to forests adapting to climate change by acting as a buffer and providing some habitat for species — a place where these populations can still exist.” 

“There is tremendous concern that wildfires are becoming more severe,” said Kolden, an associate professor in the Department of Forest, Rangeland and Fire Sciences. “But our findings indicate that in this aspect they are not.”

The next steps for Meddens, Kolden and their colleagues is trying to understand what factors determine why and where fire refugia form, with an eye toward replicating them — which could benefit both land managers trying to protect critical habitat and homeowners who live in, or close to, fire-prone areas.

The research team also includes John Abatzoglou of U of I’s College of Science, Andrew Hudak of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station and James Lutz of Utah State University. A full version of the paper can be viewed at: 

This project, “Spatiotemporal Patterns of Unburned Areas within Fire Perimeters in the Northwestern United States from 1984 to 2014,” was based on work funded under The National Science Foundation award No. DMS-1511173; the Joint Fire Science Program, grant No. L16AC00202, and the Department of the Interior Northwest Climate Science Center (NW CSC) through a Cooperative Agreement G14AP00177 from the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The total amount of federal funds through the National Science Foundation is $2,775,000, which amounts to 100 percent of the total cost of the project. The total amount of federal funds from the Joint Fire Science Program is $256,829, which amounts to 100 percent of the total cost of the project. The total amount of federal funds awarded to U of I through the Northwest Climate Science Center is $351,310, which amounts to 100 percent of the total cost of the U of I portion of the project.

Media Contact:
Sara Zaske
Marketing and Communications Manager, College of Natural Resources
Office: 111-111-2737
Cell: 510-872-0340
[email protected]

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 12,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky Conference. Learn more at