Post-Wildfire Reforestation

In 2021 alone, 7.6 million acres of forest burned across the United States. These forests released 6.45 billion MTCO2e into the atmosphere—more than 2021 US emissions from industry, power generation, and transportation combined. 2021 represented the highest ever annual recorded emissions from wildfire. This emissions source is expected to grow in years to come.

In the American West, where the wildfire risk is increasingly catastrophic, the CC Lab is exploring novel methods of reforestation which aim to increase seedling survival after outplanting. If more effective reforestation strategies can be identified and adopted regionally, these practices may result in greater long-term carbon sequestration and improved forest health over larger areas.

Reforestation Timeline

The CC Lab conducted a first round of experimental replanting at a severely burned site in Oregon in May 2022. In October 2022, we planted additional trees on the same acreage, and evaluated survival of the seedlings on previously planted acres. Over the next five years, our collaborators at the site will replant several thousand acres according to the results of this experiment as we continue to collect and interpret data.


Identify novel reforestation practices which are appropriate for our collaborators to deploy


Design a field experiment and develop a measurement and monitoring plan


Execute and analyze small-scale controlled planting trials for seedling survival and resilience


Support larger-scale controlled planting trials

Ecosystem Benefits

Reforestation of burned areas represents a viable, cost-effective way to remove carbon from the atmosphere. It also ensures that wildfire-affected communities continue to have access to vital ecosystem services, including improved water quality for fisheries, sustained wildlife habitat, erosion control, and reduced landslide risk.

Reforestation Strategies

Working with project collaborators, we have deployed a large-scale field experiment to test the effects of low-density planting, fall versus spring planting, use of hydrogels to improve soil water retention around seedling roots, inoculating soil with beneficial microbes and fungi, mixing tree species, varying seedling age, and using root treatments. The trial site for these treatments has been heavily and repeatedly burned over the last several years.

As wildfires increase in size and severity across the US, the backlog of areas requiring reforestation increases. 

Douglas fir seedlings in an Oregon nursery. CC Lab 2022.
Douglas fir seedlings in an Oregon nursery. CC Lab 2022.

We Need to Ramp Up Reforestation 

To some extent, forests can regenerate naturally. However, after severe fires, many burned forest areas are unable to recover on their own, and risk permanently converting to shrub and grasslands if planting does not occur 2 to 3 years after a fire. Shrubland does not confer the same ecosystem benefits and does not store as much carbon as forests.

Several aspects of the reforestation process prevent the US from reaching its reforestation goals. Seedlings must first be grown from seed at nurseries. National reforestation plans face shortfalls of genetically appropriate seed stock and nursery capacity. Even when seedlings are secured, they often fail to survive in severely burned areas, requiring workers to replant the same areas multiple times. 

A lack of available skilled and unskilled labor also puts strain on all aspects of the system and increases costs. We are currently investigating several bottlenecks in the reforestation process and evaluating potential Lab interventions.

Young ponderosa pines planted in Oregon after a fire. CC Lab 2022.
Young ponderosa pines planted in Oregon after a fire. CC Lab 2022.

Risk & Risk Mitigation

Reversal due to wildfire

Wildfire and other catastrophic events can release carbon stored in the trees, soils, and other biomass within a project area and return it to its pre-reforestation baseline state, causing a “reversal.” It is possible that wildfires may disturb the CC Lab reforestation experiment in its early stages. High uncertainties about project permanence make it more challenging to rely on carbon markets for funding.

Treatments may not improve survival

There is a chance that no single treatment trialed in the field experiment will dramatically improve seedling survival. An review of initial field results showed that overall survival of the replanted acres was uniformly low across all treatments following a hot, dry summer. However, unexpected trends emerged in the data which may merit investigation in future trials.

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