USA — The lessons of a new wildland fire science program at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point are etched in the aspens and forest floors of Yellowstone National Park burned by dozens of fires in the summer of 1988.
While firefighters saved lives and property, they could do little to control or stop the fires that scorched 500,000 acres — 36% of the park — because weather and drought made them behave in unusual ways.
But remarkably, the flames that destroyed also rejuvenated trees and plants, providing lessons in how fire naturally balances ecosystems and makes them even stronger. Vegetation in Yellowstone and other wildlands has adapted to survive fire, and in some cases, depends on it.
UW-Stevens Point’s wildland fire science program — the first undergraduate program of its kind in the eastern U.S. and one of only a half dozen in the nation — is teaching not only the complex science of how fire behaves and what fuels it, but also how “prescribed” fire can nurture native vegetation and save endangered birds and insects.
American Indians of the 19th century understood fire could be used as a tool. They knew that after a fire, prairie grasses grew back more lush to attract buffalo and elk.
“We lost that knowledge through the generations,” said Brad Kildow, a DNR forester and ranger who teaches firefighting to UW-Stevens Point students. “The wildland fire science program delves into how important fire is to landscape, and how we can help the public understand and accept it as a relatively safe and effective management tool.”
Students learning the science of both putting out fires and using them wisely are training for jobs in the growing fields of fire management and fire ecology.
The university already boasts one of the nation’s top natural resources colleges and a nationally recognized Fire Crew student organization with about 200 members. The state Department of Natural Resources trains the Fire Crew students to fight fires. In return, the student Fire Crew provides backup when the DNR needs help fighting wildland fires. Many of the Fire Crew members also spend summers working for federal agencies, fighting wildfires.
Wildland fire science is the sixth discipline of resource management within UW-Stevens Point’s College of Natural Resources.
The university hired associate professor Ron Masters to develop a curriculum and teach classes starting this semester. His research background is the use of planned or “prescribed” fires in ecosystem restoration and wildlife and vegetation management. He also is an expert in fire behavior modeling — predicting how a fire will behave based on topography, wind, temperature, humidity and atmospheric stability, then using those predictions to deploy resources.
“Fire is a natural process,” Masters said. “And understanding the ecology of an area will help you understand what’s going to burn and happen next. You prepare a firefighter to have situational awareness that things can change rapidly and fire behavior can be unpredictable.”
Last year, about 60,000 fires ignited in the U.S. The U.S. Forest Service spends $1 billion annually fighting fires.
Because the U.S. has a long history of suppressing fire, thick underbrush and other vegetation that can fuel flames have been allowed to build up, creating more risk of catastrophic loss whenever fires are sparked by lightning or human carelessness, Masters said. Managing fire risk involves removing some of that “fuel,” especially from forests and wildlands with houses nearby.
Some natural fuels in a forest or grassland burn faster than others. Drought conditions and summer thunderstorms with gusting, rapidly changing wind can add to the complexity.
Since 1988, fires on federal lands no longer are suppressed unless it endangers people or property, according to federal policy.
Federal agencies look for lessons in every catastrophic fire. UW-Stevens Point students in the wildland fire science program will learn from those lessons.
The Yarnell Hill fire last summer that was ignited by lightning outside an old gold mining village south of Prescott, Ariz., killed 19 members of an elite firefighting crew on June 30. They were overrun by a storm-driven wall of flames in a chaparral canyon after losing communication with their commanders. It was the greatest loss of firefighter lives since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The fire also destroyed about 130 buildings and burned more than 8,000 acres, prompting a mandatory evacuation order for more than 600 people.
In addition to dangerous shifting winds, drought conditions and temperatures over 100 degrees contributed to the fire’s rapid spread and erratic behavior, the investigation concluded. Loss of communication sealed the firefighters’ fate.
The Yellowstone cases offered lessons about how ecosystems interact with fire.
Scientists noted how some plants that depend on light reaching the forest floor actually thrived after the fires killed the thickly spaced, mature trees that had shaded them.
New plant growth began within days wherever there was water because temperatures high enough to kill deep roots occurred in less than 0.1% of the park, according to the National Park Service. Plant growth was unusually lush in the first years after the fires because ash is rich in minerals and more sunlight could reach forest floors.
Fire also stimulated the growth of suckers from the underground root system of aspens, and left behind bare, mineral-rich soil that provided optimal growing conditions for the aspen seedlings that popped up throughout the park’s burned areas — even where aspen had not been before.
Burned pine bark provided nutritious food for elk. Bears were observed grazing more frequently at burned than unburned sites. Scientists noted no significant changes in fish in streams and rivers flowing into or out of Yellowstone and Lewis lakes, even though fire burned the areas surrounding them.
Wisconsin trees and animals also benefit from fire.
Jack pine in central and northern Wisconsin — a prized paper species that produces dense pulp with long fibers — provides habitat for the endangered Kirtland’s warbler, a songbird with persnickety nesting preferences.
The rarest of the warblers, the Kirtland’s is often called the “bird of fire” because it prefers nesting in areas cleared by wildfire. It only nests on the ground near the lower branches of shrubby, young jack pines that also rely on fire, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The jack pine’s life cycle depends on the heat of fire to fully open its cones and release seeds. It also requires full sunlight to regenerate, so it can’t grow under mature trees, said Kildow, the DNR forester and ranger.
Foresters could artificially collect seeds from jack pine cones, expose large areas of soil by running a bulldozer through a forest, and spread seeds over that soil with hand seeders. Or, they could use a carefully controlled fire to both release the jack pine seeds and expose nutrient-rich soil in which the seeds could grow, Kildow said.
Planned fires don’t burn entire fields or forests, but create a mosaic of burned and unburned patches with some habitat still intact. It’s the same way naturally occurring fires behave.
“Prescribed fire involves planning for an outcome. That’s the science,” said UW-Stevens Point junior Brian Gorman, a member of the student Fire Crew from Connecticut who is majoring in wildland fire science.
“We’re not sending people out to spray herbicides or cut trees with chain saws,” Gorman said. “We’re using something that’s existed as a natural part of our ecosystem. We’re learning to harness that natural process to restore areas and increase habitat.”