Posts Tagged: Fire ecology
Over a dozen UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) California Naturalists, fire ecology experts, wildlife biologists, resource managers, educators, and artists met at UC Berkeley's Blodgett Forest Research Station and the adjacent El Dorado National Forest April 23 and 24, and not one of them complained about the much-needed deluge of rain and intermittent hail that soaked the group. The weekend's ambitious goal? To dive deeply into a UC California Naturalist Program and California Fire Science Consortium advanced training workshop on the subject of wildfire effects on Sierran mixed conifer forests.
With the 2014 El Dorado National Forest's King Fire as a case study, a mix of lectures, field studies, art, field journaling techniques, and Native American story telling were used to examine land management practices that influence fire behavior and explore how the landscape recovers from fire. UC ANR Cooperative Extension Central Sierra's forestry advisor Susie Kocher and community education specialist Kim Ingram organized and facilitated the workshop.
Blodgett Forest, situated on the Georgetown Divide in El Dorado County, was donated to the University of California in 1933 to provide a research site and practical demonstrations of forestry for students, forest industry, and the public. The adjacent El Dorado National Forest is home to the notorious September-October 2014 King Fire that burned 97,000 acres of forest, including 63,000 acres of public land. Aided by low relative humidity and wind, the fire spread quickly up the steep Rubicon River and surrounding subwatersheds. According to the incident report, approximately 46 percent of the burn area burned at a high and moderate soil burn severity, consuming all organic duff on the soil surface along with leaves and needles on standing live vegetation.
Workshop participants were treated to a lecture and field studies of basic fire ecology concepts by Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at UC Berkeley. Stephens lectured in class, and later demonstrated on a number of wet, lush forested treatment plots in the field, topics ranging from fire policy, fuels management options and objectives, and carbon sequestration to fire suppression consequences, fire behavior and severity, soil stability, and post-fire forest structure. Stephens is a researcher with the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (SNAMP), a long-term collaborative research project investigating how forest fuels thinning impacts fire behavior, fire risk, wildlife, forest health, and water. Fire is a vital to maintaining healthy California forests and ecosystems and Stephens's work demonstrates that both prescribed fire and its mechanical thinning replacements can successfully change forest structure and fuel loads, resulting in potential overall improvement of forest health. He finds that treated forest stands are more resistant and resilient to high-intensity wildfire and that these treatments have minor to negligible negative impacts on birds and small mammals, understory plant diversity, exotic plant invasions, and insect attack. Current and future research is in part focused on the impact and feasibility of treatments across the landscape.
Also joining participants was Sheila Whitmore from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Whitmore is the assistant project leader on SNAMP's owl team, which studies how fuel reduction treatments affect California spotted owl survival, forest occupancy, and reproductive success. The California spotted owl is one of three sub-species of spotted owls and the only spotted owl that has not yet been placed on the endangered species list, although its population is widely thought to be declining. Late in the evening, accompanied by Whimore, three nocturnal field technicians, and armed with tools of the trade like bird call whistles and flashlights, participants quietly slogged deep into the forest along the 22-mile system of El Dorado Irrigation District canals, listening for the territorial four-note hoot of the California spotted owl. While the crew eventually found one female owl on the night hike, the owl team has just started surveying breeding territories this spring and are uncertain how and if the owls will be impacted by the King Fire. Modeling efforts and a radio telemetry study seek answers to questions about demography, habitat, individual range size, and foraging preferences, given different levels of severity in burned forests.
Day two of the workshop, under warm sunshine, began with a discussion of Native American fire ecology and traditional stories shared by Kimberly Shiningstar Petree. Petree is a Tumelay Nissenan Miwok, the cultural preservation officer for her tribe, and the founder of the Cosumnes Culture and Waterways, a non-profit dedicated to promoting, preserving, and stewarding Indigenous Culture and waterways of their land. As told by a descendant of the first stewards of the area's forests and a carrier of an ancient oral tradition, the fire stories that Petree shared with the group were both relevant to today's fire management practices, and moving, setting a positive tone for the rest of the day.
Patricia Trimble, El Dorado National Forest's Georgetown district ranger, and Laurie Wigham, illustrator, painter and art teacher, accompanied participants on field activities. Trimble took participants on a road-based tour of the King Fire, demonstrating the effects of low, moderate and severe fire on the landscape. She shared information on consequences of long-term fire suppression, fire impacts, Forest Service strategies for protecting cultural resources, forest replanting and erosion abatement efforts, National Environmental Policy Act regulations, and public perception of fire. More than seven months after the fire, the Forest Service has just opened the burn back up to the public, and the public was out in force mushroom hunting, fishing, and cutting firewood within the high severity areas of the King Fire.
Wigham thoughtfully braided art and field journaling techniques seamlessly into the stops along the way. She shared inexpensive and novel ways to document the landscape in a group or individual setting at difference scales. She offered low-tech tricks to help participants deepen their ability to absorb dense and technical information, observe nature closely and scientifically, and to connect with feelings about a place and time in nature.
Lectures, field study, art, field journaling techniques, knowledge sharing, and Native American story telling: supported by a solid framework of current science topics and research results, they all had their place in this advanced training workshop. Each individual piece of the fire ecology workshop was enriching and informative, and forced participants to move deeper and more thoughtfully into their understanding of the dense topic than they might on their own. The regeneration of the El Dorado National Forest after the King Fire will undoubtedly provide inspiration, research, and education opportunities far into the future.
The UC California Naturalist Program uses a science curriculum, hands-on learning and service to inspire stewardship of the state's natural resources. The public and UC-certified Naturalists alike may sign up for future California Naturalist Advanced Trainings here.
Millions of trees, including tanoaks, coast live oak, California bay laurels, and many other forest species have been killed by sudden oak death in coastal areas of central and northern California, and Oregon. The pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum, was first linked to the massive tree death in the mid-1990s.
David Rizzo, professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at UC Davis, and his research team are studying how the coastal forest ecology is changing since sudden oak death appeared, and why coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are subsequently so much more susceptible to fire.
It is the presence of the sudden oak death pathogen in forests that poses heavier fire risks for redwoods.
“If redwoods didn’t live in forests affected by the disease, they could withstand fires just fine,” says Margaret Metz, a postdoctoral research scholar working with Rizzo.
According to Rizzo, “The disease likely created more fuel for wildfires as dead tanoak branches fell. The loss of the oaks also would have decreased the amount of shade, drying out the forest and turning it into a tinder box, one not even redwoods could survive.”
A real key, though, is the finding that dead tanoaks, still standing, carry flames high into tree canopies, scorching the crowns of adjacent redwood trees. It’s this crown injury that is believed to have caused so many redwood trees to die in a number of fires that occurred in 2008.
Rizzo, noting that an increase in fire severity is resulting from climate change and global movement of species, says, “There may be all sorts of consequences, among them, dead and dying coast redwoods.”
- California's iconic redwoods in danger from fire and infectious disease. National Science Foundation report on Rizzo group’s work, August 2013
- The effects of sudden oak death and wildfire on forest composition and dynamics in the Big Sur ecoregion of coastal California. General technical report
- Ecology research article, Ecological Society of America
- California Oak Mortality Task Force website
Ask most youth what they think about wildfires in forests and they will usually respond with "they kill trees and animals" or "it’s bad – they burn down homes and put out lots of smoke." They are partially right.
Ask youth about considering a career studying the history of fire from a tree cookie, a slice of tree branch that shows the rings, or lake bed sedimentation. Or ask them what role wind plays in how a fire jumps from treetop to treetop or how wildfire can help open pine cones and produce a huge flower show. Then they might respond with, "No way, is that a real job?"
Two eighth-grade students at Sutter Middle School in Sacramento got a chance to learn about fire ecology careers through a project in their science class requiring researching science careers. Students Maura Ingram and Jordan Johnston decided to explore fire ecology and learned that fire is a hot career choice.
Maura and Jordan interviewed Scott Stephens, professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley*, about fire ecology careers. They learned that fire ecology as a discipline focuses on the origins of wildland fire and its relationship to the environment, both living and non-living. Fire ecologists recognize that fire is a natural and important process in the forested ecosystem, one that both animals and plants depend on.
“Some fire ecologists will be fire managers working with the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service or private companies and will ignite and manage prescribed fires and manage wildfires,” Stephens said. “Other fire ecologists with jobs like mine will do research and write papers as teachers and university faculty. That will help guide fire managers in their work. More people are getting interested in fire ecology and the field has really grown in the last 15 years."
"Fire effects the forested landscape, by shaping the patterns of vegetation growth and mortality, recycles nutrients and changes the foraging and reproductive habitat for wildlife,” Stephens continued. “Fire is a critical part of most ecosystems in California and not allowing it to operate is causing great harm. We can do some operations with mechanical thinning and other methods to duplicate some aspects of fire, but not all of them.”
Anu Kramer and Kate Wilkin, UC Berkeley graduate students in the Stephens Fire Lab, showed Maura some of the tools they use in fire ecology research, such as lidar, computer fire models and the fire vortex used to demonstrate fire physics and extreme fire behavior.
“Extreme fire can create its own weather patterns including the creation and collapse of a fire column which can be very dangerous,” said Anu. “The fire vortex helps us visualize this on a small scale for our research.”
UC Berkeley students and researchers are working to understand how warming and precipitation changes due to climate change will affect fire frequency and behavior, and how fire disturbances affect plants by conducting scientific research and providing training in the fields of wildland fire science, ecology, and resource management. Students and researchers participate in interdisciplinary efforts when possible and share findings by publishing results in peer reviewed academic journals, posters for academic conferences, and conducting outreach to schools. Berkeley provides high quality scientific training and guidance for graduate students that will prepare them for careers in academia or professional fire science, policy or management.
“When you think about fire-related careers, most kids think that firefighters are the only ones that deal with fire directly,” said Maura. “But the career opportunities are endless. I have learned a lot about how important fire is. Fires can still cause a lot of damage to the forest and homes, but studying fire ecology is helpful because we can then use the data to apply fire in a more beneficial way – ways that help the forest, wildlife and the overall environment."
Stephens is one of the principle investigators of the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (SNAMP). SNAMP is investigating how fuels thinning projects effects fire behavior and forest health, water quality and quantity, and wildlife.
Kate Wilkins and Maura at the Stephens Fire Lab. (Photo: Kim Ingram)