Thursday, June 18, 2009

SNRAS scientist helps forge fire prescription

The Nenana Ridge prescribed burn takes off on June 17

Associate Professor Scott Rupp is project manager on a first-of-its-kind in Alaska prescribed burn held in the Tanana Valley State Forest June 17-18 at Nenana Ridge, about thirty miles south of Fairbanks.

The fire, a remarkably well coordinated effort involving UAF and many state and federal agencies, should provide a formula for future research burns. “We’ll show how difficult it is to do this,” Dr. Rupp said just before the fire was set on June 17. And he should know; he has worked on the project for three years, with everything and everyone set to go in the summer of 2008 just when heavy rains set in, delaying the burn for a year.

“It’s about finding the funding and working with agencies, researchers, and the resources available when the weather is right,” Rupp explained. “It’s complicated.”

Throughout the process he has learned what it takes in manpower and budget to do the preparation work and the practical, economic issues of concern to agencies, he said.

(At left, Scott Rupp demonstrates moss moisture content)

Studying black spruce fires is important in Alaska, where thousands of lightning strikes occur daily in the summer, making forests susceptible to fire. The premise of this research was to prepare plots in advance and see how they fared during an actual fire. Several five-acre treatment blocks were either thinned or shear-bladed. The thinned sections appeared nearly park like, with generous spacing between the trees. The shear-bladed plots were open fields with lines of wind rows, created from tree debris and stumps, strategically placed. The idea is not to study fire prevention but fire behavior, as the researchers recognize that forest fires are an integral element in the boreal forest ecosystem, clearing the way for new growth and hence a variety of wildlife to live there. Yet understanding fire can help communities better protect citizens’ property.

Fire behavior is a primary concern to fire scientists. The researchers will quantify many elements of the fire with high-tech equipment that measures consumption of the understory, what vegetation is in the ground, how many dead and downed twigs are there, moisture measurements, wind speed, temperature of the forest floor, and much more. A dozen sensors and cameras were placed in burn-proof boxes to collect data throughout the fire. Rupp and a team of researchers will be evaluating the post-fire effects for months to come, and Rupp expects to publish a paper about the project as early as this fall.

The burn attracted the attention of the National Geographic Society, which sent a writer and photographer to cover the event for its magazine and television station. Researchers from the Missoula (Montana) Fire Sciences Laboratory, the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station in Seattle, and the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Moscow, Idaho, were on hand.

Agencies involved included the Joint Fire Science Program, UAF, Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Fire Service, USDA Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Ruffed Grouse Society.

Nearly eighty firefighters from the BLM Alaska Fire Service and the Alaska Division of Forestry, including the Midnight Sun Hotshots, assisted with the operation.

“I’m so glad this fire is finally in prescription,” said Chris Maisch, director of the Division of Forestry, “This research is really needed to help guide the fuels management program. We’ll learn the best treatments; we have a lot of anecdotal evidence but this puts hard science behind it.”

Photos and story by Nancy Tarnai, SNRAS public information officer

Also see:
"Researchers study the science of fire," Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, June 18, 2009, by Chris Eshleman

Alaska Interagency Coordination Center fire updates

No comments: