Strategies for reducing carbon dioxide emissions include substitution of fossil fuel with bioenergy from forests, where carbon emitted is expected to be recaptured in the growth of new biomass to achieve zero net emissions, and forest thinning to reduce wildfire emissions. Here, we use forest inventory data to show that fire prevention measures and large-scale bioenergy harvest in US West Coast forests lead to 2-14% (46-405 Tg C) higher emissions compared with current management practices over the next 20 years. We studied 80 forest types in 19 ecoregions, and found that the current carbon sink in 16 of these ecoregions is sufficiently strong that it cannot be matched or exceeded through substitution of fossil fuels by forest bioenergy. If the sink in these ecoregions weakens below its current level by 30-60 g C m -2 yr -1 owing to insect infestations, increased fire emissions or reduced primary production, management schemes including bioenergy production may succeed in jointly reducing fire risk and carbon emissions. In the remaining three ecoregions, immediate implementation of fire prevention and biofuel policies may yield net emission savings. Hence, forest policy should consider current forest carbon balance, local forest conditions and ecosystem sustainability in establishing how to decrease emissions.