Widespread fire suppression and thinning have altered the structure and composition of many forests in the western United States, making them more susceptible to the synergy of large-scale drought and fire events. We examine how these changes affect carbon storage and stability compared to historic fire-adapted conditions. We modeled carbon dynamics under possible drought and fire conditions over a 300-year simulation period in two mixed-conifer conditions common in the western United States: (1) pine-dominated with an active fire regime and (2) fir-dominated, fire suppressed forests. Fir-dominated stands, with higher live- and dead-wood density, had much lower carbon stability as drought and fire frequency increased compared to pine-dominated forest. Carbon instability resulted from species (i.e., fir's greater susceptibility to drought and fire) and stand (i.e., high density of smaller trees) conditions that develop in the absence of active management. Our modeling suggests restoring historic species composition and active fire regimes can significantly increase carbon stability in fire-suppressed, mixed-conifer forests. Long-term management of forest carbon should consider the relative resilience of stand structure and composition to possible increases in disturbance frequency and intensity under changing climate.
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