CAL FIRE Adaptation to Climate Change

Adaptation can be defined as any action or adjustment to natural or human systems to minimize harm or take advantage of benefits from climate change. Forests are vulnerable to climate impacts, including increased fires, drought, invasive species and more. Efforts to foster forest adaptation are important to both ecosystem values (such as wildlife habitat, watersheds and streams, clean air and water, and soils) and human values (such as property, life safety, and wood products).

The most fundamental adaptation issue is protection of basic forest ecosystem functions and productivity. Related important issues are protecting forests and people from increasing wildfire risks and utilizing biomass as a part of adaptation strategies.

Forest Ecosystem Health and Productivity

Climate change (and secondary factors such as insects, disease, and invasive species) may dramatically change forested and range landscapes, resulting in expansions of some forest and woodland types, contraction of others, and conversions to brush and grassland habitats. These changes will affect forest ecosystem health and productivity, watersheds, and wildfire regimes.

Adaptive approaches to forest regeneration can increase resilience in the short and long term. These approaches include addressing forest insects and diseases, controlling invasive species, and adjusting silvicultural practices to establish forests that are more tolerant of future climate conditions. The latter includes planting genetically appropriate species that will be better adapted to changed climate conditions than the genotypes currently on site.

To address this aspect of adaptation, it will be important to:

  • Monitor forest health and identify areas where insects and disease, invasive species, and tree mortality levels are high or increasing.
  • Utilize control programs to eradicate or limit insects, diseases, and invasive species.
  • Educate landowners, forest practitioners, and the public about how they can avoid moving insects, diseases, and invasive species for infected areas to uninfected areas.
  • Support programs for collection, propagation, and dissemination of tree species and genotypes that are better adapted to the changing environmental conditions in specific places.
  • Reduce hazardous fuel loads resulting from tree mortality or invasive species.

Adaptation and Protection from Wildfire

The Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) where human settlement and forests overlap is especially susceptible to damage from wildfire and invasive species. Government and citizens can take steps to reduce the impacts of wildfire on our homes, communities and ecosystems. Adaptation strategies to protect forests and communities from wildfire will require:

  • Reduction of fire hazard and restoration of fire-resistant conditions through thinning, brush removal and stand improvement where needed so that ecosystems are more resilient to disturbance
  • Improvement of land use planning by avoiding future development in high fire hazard areas
  • Implementation of fire safe practices around homes and other development, and use of ignition-resistant construction
  • Provisions for local emergency plans to ensure public safety when wildfires occur
  • Recovery planning and implementation to reduce erosion and watershed damage, flooding and risks to public safety, and habitat damage by invasive species.

Biomass Utilization for Energy and Climate Adaptation

Climate change poses many challenges to California forests, including predicted increases in wildfire, insects and disease, and invasive species. These changes could affect the health and productivity of our forests, impacting ecosystem services and environmental, economic and social values. Adaptation strategies include strategic forest thinning and fuels reduction to restore stand conditions that are more resistant to catastrophic wildfire, insect and disease events and to reestablish ecosystem resilience to natural cycles of disturbance.

In addition to reducing wildfire damages, these treatments provide an opportunity to utilize biomass, generally defined as organic vegetative material, for energy production. This biomass is primarily the excess trees and shrubs that would not be otherwise used for higher value commercial products or needed for environmental protection values. Estimates suggest that up to 14.3 million tons of bone dry biomass (BDT) are available from California forests for use on a sustainable basis. Biomass utilization for energy will provide a greenhouse benefit from avoided fossil fuel use, job opportunities for local rural communities, avoided costs and environmental impacts from reduced landfill, and public health benefits by reducing air quality from both wildfire smoke and open burning of materials.

For more information about biomass, see our Biomass webpage.

Role of Urban Forests in Climate Mitigation

Urban forests also help mitigate greenhouse gas trends and reduce the effects of climate change. Urban trees, like trees in natural forests, sequester carbon. Urban trees also reduce energy use by shading buildings, reduce heat island effects and associated health impacts, absorb and filter storm runoff and urban flooding, and protect air quality. Climate adaptation in urban areas should include strategic tree-planting of appropriate species and ongoing maintenance in order to maintain and expand the benefits of urban forests.

For more information, see our Urban and Community Forestry website.


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