Alaska researchers study the science of fire

Alaska researchers study the science of fire

18 June 2009

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Fire managers, forestry scientists and firefighter crews teamed Wednesday for the first leg of a project aimed at deciphering more about how fire behaves in Alaska’s boreal forests.

The groups are working with researchers on a major prescribed, or pre-planned, burn southwest of Fairbanks at Nenana Ridge, an area managed as habitat for ruffed grouse.

The 240-acre tract burned Wednesday was blanketed, as is much of Interior Alaska, by flammable black spruce trees. By the time fire crews torched the tract’s southern boundary, researchers had laced the area with fire-proof boxes containing instruments and cameras.

The work was aimed at observing fire’s behavior at four 5-acre blocks of land that had been thinned or clear-cut with methods wildland firefighters use to slow or stall advancing fires. The project’s conclusions, when researchers finish with the data, will help managers recommend and follow policies aimed at protecting people and nature — that is, guarding wildland from human activity and, at the same time, guarding cities and populated neighborhoods from wildfires.

“The main purpose here is research,” Robert Schmoll, a state Division of Forestry officer and fire boss for roughly 80 personnel at Nenana Ridge, said at a late-morning briefing.

The project — already delayed two years — was not without its hitches. Cloud cover halted the fire from immediately growing powerful enough to sweep across the site efficiently.

When the fire finally caught steam, the fire jumped boundaries that crews had cut for the project, creating small “spot” fires that drew firefighters’ attention. Rain clouds appeared from the southeast early in the evening and seemed to compound worries.

By day’s end, however, managers were calling the burn a success.

A second, almost identical burn is scheduled to follow, possibly as early as today.

“They really met the operational goals today, especially as the fire traveled toward the back (two) plots,” said Maggie Rogers, a spokeswoman for the Division of Forestry.

Researchers first proposed the project in 2006. That was right after two of the largest burn seasons in Alaska history, when a combined 11 million acres burned and governments spent more than $180 million on suppression.

Fire managers rely on a handful of treatment techniques to protect against the spread of wildfires before they spark. Among the techniques used are fire breaks, or strips of land bulldozed or scorched of vegetation, and shaded fuel breaks, where a forest is selectively thinned.

The research group noted in its proposal that managers often decide subjectively what types of treatment might work best. But there’s little in the way of measured, quantitative data — and none taken from Alaska’s ecologically complex forests — to help them know more about which methods of treatment work best here and why.

Wednesday’s prescribed burn originally was slated for 2007, but scheduling glitches, weather problems and other variables postponed action for two summers. But agencies on the long, diverse list of collaborators or contributors stayed interested, and the burn attracted a photography crew from National Geographic.

Cathie Harms, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Fish and Game, said wildlife biologists want to know more about how the research’s forthcoming conclusions could impact fire management policy. Wildfire is the key first step in ecological regeneration, termed succession, that throughout time transforms areas of dense, boggy spruce forest into willow- and Alder-laden habitat preferred by moose.

“The boreal forest, what we live in, is a fire-dependent ecosystem,” Harms said. Understanding more about the science of fire will help agencies and policymakers reach more informed decisions, she said.

Fire managers’ interest in fire-protection plans and policies spiked following the 2004 and 2005 burn seasons.

Add to that a changing climate — the state has warmed by more than 3 degrees during the past five decades, according to the Alaska Climate Research Center — and an expansion of the wildland-urban interface in growing communities, and the research team cited a heightened importance on understanding which types of fuel treatment work best in the long and short terms.

The Alaska Wildland Fire Coordinating Group, a collection of state, federal and Native agencies, identified a “data gap” in fire science as a top priority for research, according to the project’s research group. That group, led by University of Alaska Fairbanks assistant forestry professor Scott Rupp, was particularly interested in learning more about how fire treatment methods work in Alaska’s boreal forest conditions.

The team wrote in its 2006 project summary that fire managers have traditionally recommended and paid for certain treatments without being able to rely on numbers that show those methods actually work. Researchers in Canada have conducted a handful of empirical projects useful in predicting wildfire behavior, Rupp said. But Alaska’s forests differ from forests found across most of North America, making the thought of Alaska-specific data attractive.

Rupp led a group of observers Wednesday on a pre-burn, mid-morning walk through the 240-acre site. He stopped halfway in and dug his fingers into the vegetative mat carpeting the terrain, peeling up a manhole-sized patch of moss to reveal mineral-rich soil. That bed of soil, Rupp said, stays wetter and colder than it would in counterpart forests found at other latitudes, one reason fire behaves differently in boreal forests than elsewhere.

“(Alaska’s) just a very different beast,” he said.

Crews have lined up an 8 a.m. call today to decide when to move ahead with the project’s second burn area, a 288-acre tract immediately next to Wednesday’s site.

The project received support from the federal Joint Fire Science Program.

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