SEFS Researchers Awarded Grant to Study Fire Management in Washington

Three researchers at SEFS—including Research Associates Derek Churchill and Van Kane, as well as Research Ecologist Alina Cansler—are part of a team that was just awarded a $383,565 grant through the federal Joint Fire Science Program.

The project, “Landscape Evaluations and Prescriptions for Post-Fire Landscapes,” will focus on landscape approaches to post-fire management in north-central Washington. Specifically, the researchers will be studying recent fires in the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Colville national forests, with the goal of assisting forest managers in better understanding the effects of large wildfires on landscape conditions—and facilitating science-driven approaches to post-fire management.

Professor Andrew Larson from the University of Montana is the principal investigator, and $196,000 of the total grant will go to support the SEFS researchers. Other team members include Paul Hessburg and Nick Povak from the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station; Professor Jim Lutz from Utah State University; and Richy Harrod from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

2016_04_Fire Management Grant1Project Overview
Wildfires in the western United States are modifying the structure and composition of forests at rates that far exceed mechanical and prescribed fire treatments. Despite the huge number of acres affected by wildfires each year, our scientific understanding and social license regarding how to both critically assess and manage post-fire landscapes to maximize resilience to future disturbances is limited. Millions of burned acres are thus being left to recover naturally with little landscape-level analysis of the ecosystem structure and function that is likely to result. Credible stewardship of western forests must consider the effects of recent and future wildfires in a whole-landscape framework.

The “work” of wildfires can be beneficial in terms of reducing fuel loads (Lydersen et al. 2012), enhancing fire resistant species and structure (Larson et al. 2013), and creating early-seral habitat (Swanson et al. 2011). However, many recent wildfires are creating large high-severity patches in dry forest systems that were historically dominated by low- and mixed-severity fires (Cansler and McKenzie 2014). This may be creating conditions that are more susceptible to future high-severity disturbances or shifts to new ecosystem states that will not sustain the same ecological and social functions. We will provide managers with a framework to quantify the extent to which fires moved forest structure and composition towards or away from desired conditions by evaluating wildfire effects relative to reference conditions.

In north-central Washington, 2014 and 2015 were record-setting wildfire years, burning hundreds of thousands of acres on the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Colville national forests. These fires burned through a wide range of treated and untreated conditions at a range of severities, including re-burning past wildfires that received a range of post-fire management activities. These large fire years have presented a huge challenge to managers and collaborative stakeholder groups in terms of how to assess the need for post-fire management actions. Relatively little post-fire management has been proposed or implemented.

The researchers will address both ecological and management questions by:

  • Investigating how wildfires are shaping the temporal and spatial patterns of vegetation and fuels as influenced by combinations of annual weather, local climate, topography, prior fire, and prior management.
  • Assessing how forests have recovered from previous fires, with special focus on the effects of prior management.
  • Building tools to assist managers and stakeholder groups to assess how future fires may affect forest structure, and determine what combinations of post-fire management and green tree treatments will best enhance future forest resilience.
  • Showing which landscape assessment tools allow the best understanding of patterns of pre- and post-fire forest structure by comparing several tools across our study area with a particular focus on understanding and demonstrating the use of airborne LiDAR data.

Photos courtesy of Derek Churchill.

2016_04_Fire Management Grant2

Alina Cansler Earns National Wilderness Award

Last year, SEFS doctoral candidate Alina Cansler collaborated on a paper that recently won the 2013 Excellence in Wilderness Stewardship Research Award, which will be presented at a ceremony for the National Wilderness Awards in Missoula, Mont., on January 28!

Alina Cansler

Cansler measuring shrubs in Yosemite.

Co-sponsored by the International Journal of Wilderness and the U.S. Forest Service, the award recognizes the contribution of a timely research endeavor that informs and responds to wilderness stewardship challenges. Cansler and her coauthors won for their 2013 paper, “Latent Resilience in Ponderosa Pine Forest: Effects of Resumed Frequent Fire,” which was originally published in Ecological Applications and addresses forest structure and composition in the Bob Marshall Wilderness following the reintroduction of fire after decades of exclusion.

Andrew Larson, the lead author on the publication, earned his Ph.D. from SEFS in 2009, and the SEFS connections don’t end there, as Affiliate Professor Don McKenzie and Jeremy Littell won the award in 2011!

Congratulations, Alina and Andrew!

Winning Publication
Andrew J. Larson, R. Travis Belote, C. Alina Cansler, Sean A. Parks, and Matthew S. Dietz 2013. Latent resilience in ponderosa pine forest: effects of resumed frequent fire. Ecological Applications 23:1243–1249.

Photos © Alina Cansler.

Into the Woods!

Last weekend, 20 graduate students spent two nights camping as part of their first Forest Community Ecology (SEFS 501) field trip. The course—co-taught by Christina Restaino and Alina Cansler, who are both working toward their Ph.Ds at SEFS—focuses on gaining a deeper understanding of forest composition in the Pacific Northwest, on both the east and west sides of the Cascade Range. There’s a strong emphasis on information gathering and analysis of ecological data, as well as on scientific writing and communication.

SEFS 501For this initial excursion—the first of two this quarter—the class headed to Blewett Pass (elevation 4,100 feet) on the east side of the Cascades. As part of their ecosystem assessments, students walked and collected data and measurements along three 20-meter transects at different elevations. Their goal was to catalog the forest composition of the understory and overstory, and they’ll use that data in their analysis assignments later in the course.

Despite getting rained for most of the three days of research and camping, the class remained incredibly upbeat and motivated, says Restaino. “We set up a tarp city, and everybody was a trooper!”

The next field trip is coming up on October 11 and 12, when the class will head down to Pack Forest and Mount Rainier National Park (shutdown permitting). For this foray on the west side of the Cascades, students will focus more on stand structure and overstory communities. They’ll also get to stay one night at Pack Forest, where they can rely on some shelter even if weather conditions don’t cooperate!

Photos and Slideshow © Christina Restaino.