UI Wildfire Researchers Study Landscapes Before, During and After Major Fires
MOSCOW, Idaho - University of Idaho wildfire researchers play an important role in a national effort to better understand how and why major fires affect landscapes.
Penny Morgan, the university's lead fire ecologist, spent much of the past year on a rapid response team observing conditions before, during and after major fires. She worked closely with U.S. Forest Service researchers on the project and others that promise new understanding of wildland fire.
Morgan's research took UI scientists and students to major Montana blazes and California's intense chaparral fires last year and to this summer's Porcupine and Chicken fires in Alaska.
The University of Idaho work was highlighted during a fire science symposium sponsored by the College of Natural Resources to celebrate 25 years of research that have established its faculty as national leaders in the discipline.
As they scoured the front lines of fires, UI researchers sometimes joined other scientists collecting information about vegetation and fire fuels just hours before wildfire roared through.
Other research teams placed heat-shielded video cameras and other sensors at plots to record fire behavior and temperature on the plots. Many cameras survived, some simply melted when the most intense heat swept over them.
Tree mortality, water repellency in soils and vegetation recovery on plots sampled after the fires can be related to conditions before, during and after the fires, and to assessments of burn severity.
The UI team's main goal is to understand, and to help fire managers plan, how best to help fire-damaged landscapes recover. The three- year project is funded by a $800,000 federal grant.
Researchers on active wildfires must rapidly evaluate potential study sites, mobilize for data collection and coordinate with fire bosses to ensure safety and address other concerns.
"Not knowing where we will sample until large fires occur is a challenge. For us, this is a wonderful opportunity. As a researcher, I'm learning a lot about large-fire management. Students benefit from being active partners in science," Morgan added.
Major wildfires, she said, often cost great sums to suppress. They also generate large, expensive projects to prevent soil erosion from damaging watersheds, or from threatening lives, buildings, roads and similar developments with landslides.
Wildfires typically burn in a patchy pattern. In some areas, trees and plants emerge untouched. In others, intense fire consumes all organic matter, leaving bare soil so seared that water cannot penetrate its surface. Large areas that are severely burned are the most at risk to soil erosion.
"Despite our excellent fire fighting capability, we will continue to have large fires in the West. We need to be wise and strategic in how we manage these areas before, during and after fires occur. Understanding where and why fires burn severely will help land managers be more effective in fuels management and post-fire rehabilitation," Morgan said.
The UI researchers use handheld sensors and computer mapping tools to link with digital images taken from airplanes and satellites. They are already able to recommend ways to improve the accuracy of post- fire burn severity maps. Soon, they will develop new approaches that will help pinpoint those areas most at risk to erosion and most likely to recover slowly from the effects of large wildfires.
Some of the scientists' efforts already are gaining notice in fire command centers, Morgan said, such as greater interest in satellite images and the value of scientific teamwork to help fire bosses make better strategic decisions.
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Professor of forest resources
University of Idaho