Humboldt State University, Cal Poly look to blend programs into fire clearinghouse

Humboldt State University, Cal Poly look to blend programs into fire clearinghouse

09 May 2010

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USA — Plans to merge Humboldt State University’s wildfire research program with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s are smoldering in Congress, a union that could make them even more influential in fire policy, education and management.

The universities represent the largest undergraduate fire research programs in the area, and have the biggest continuing education programs for federal agencies that deal with wildfire.

Congressman Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, has made the $1 million appropriation request through the Interior Appropriations Committee to link the programs and make them a clearinghouse for information, education and research on all things wildfire. The California Wildland Fire Consortium would blend HSU’s focus on fire in wildlands with Cal Poly’s expertise on fire in areas where urban and wildland fire areas come together.

Fires have ravaged California in recent years, burning millions of acres and consuming hundreds of homes. Some 30 to 40 percent of federal fire suppression expenditures are in California.

HSU professor and wildfire expert J. Morgan Varner said that the program would fill a void, providing policy makers with scientific information and focusing research on vital questions raised by wildfires. It would examine the effects of prescribed fire, post-fire salvage logging, carbon sequestration and other key components. The Interior Department appropriation would allow three to four faculty from HSU and Cal Poly to focus on the creation of the
institute, Varner said.

The HSU program already provides lots of information about how fire affects plant and animal species, the role of fire on rangelands and how fire has played out across landscapes historically.

”The expertise lies here,” Varner said.

Part of HSU’s work is done in its laboratory in the Natural Resources Building. In a facility that many other much larger universities covet, students and researchers are able to burn different materials to determine how hot, how high and how completely those materials burn.

Along one wall of the lab are stacked boxes filled with the branches, leaves, needles and bark of tree species from around the country. They include pines, poplar, ash and eastern oaks. Every pine and oak species in California has been collected.

Through a series of burns, researchers are able to learn which species burn hottest and longest. A thermal imaging camera allows them to accurately measure temperatures in each burning sample, even as they are smoldering.

Watching a 15-gram pile of pine needles burning on the fire table in the lab, it seems that such an artificial experiment couldn’t be applied in the field. In fact, when Varner was a graduate student, he didn’t put much value on the lab work. But that has changed.

”I couldn’t believe how the results we’re finding in the field also showed up in the lab,” Varner said.

Information from the lab can be fed into a mathematical model, showing how material at different moisture levels will affect the forest floor and how a fire might spread in the field.

Mathematics professor Chris Dugaw was recently awarded a $292,000 grant to study smoldering and combustion, blending the disciplines of fire study and math. It allows experiments in the laboratory to be scaled up to the landscape level, he said, after which field work can verify the results.

”One of the ultimate goals is to try to determine when smoldering and combustion kill trees,” Dugaw said.

Few researchers in the country are doing that kind of work, but an understanding of smoldering and combustion can guide policy. Varner said that in the Southeast, fire managers have long believed that oaks slow down prescribed burns and stifle plant communities. As a rule, oaks — sometimes old, lofty trees — are removed by foresters. But using information from the lab, it was learned that most species of oak from the area actually burn with a higher intensity than accompanying pines.

The information can also be used to learn how fire frequency may affect certain forests. Ponderosa and Jeffrey pine forests in the West once burned frequently, with leaf litter that burns well. Fire suppression, however, allows that litter to build up to higher levels than typical. When fire eventually comes through, the litter smolders for long periods of time, burning into the ground and the roots of big trees, killing them.

The grant award by the Joint Fire Science Program created by Congress in 1998 will fund field research and laboratory experiments for three years. Varner and Dugaw’s field work will be in the Stanislaus-Tuolomne Experimental Forest in Central California. Measurements of peat and conifer and pine duff will also be taken in northern Florida by Englin Air Force Base ecologist and conservation biologist J. Kevin Hiers.

While there are many people working on broader fire issues in the United States, HSU and Cal Poly’s proposed consortium would bring in experts from around the world to review policies for Congress and fire agencies. It also aims to develop distance learning and continuing education programs for fire managers around the world.

Varner said that the consortium would like to create a field station in Willow Creek or Orleans, in the heart of fire country. That, he said, would draw students and experts looking to see wildfires up close and explore areas that have burned over the long history of fire in the Klamath Mountains region.

That represents a shift in the HSU fire program from a concentration in the Southeast and the Sierra Nevada, to embarking on more work locally. Varner has also been talking with the Karuk Tribe — long versed in prescribed fire — about the possibility of collaborating on a field station.

”The Klamath Mountains are, thank goodness, getting more and more attention,” Varner said.

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