Skip to Content

Professor studies ecosystem for future wildfires

Attention: open in a new window. PDFPrintE-mail

 

More than half a million acres of land in Arizona were burned in the Wallow wildfires this summer, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

In Arizona alone, 27 different incidents of wildfires were reported this year totaling over 900,000 acres of land affected. These numbers were taken from the Incident Information System, an interagency risk-management system used by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fire Administration, among others.

“The Forest Service is fully committed to the recovery and rehabilitation mission in the post Wallow fire environment,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, said in a statement on Aug. 17.

The Forest Service has already seeded approximately 80,000 acres of burned land in Arizona as of Aug. 17.  In addition, Tidwell directed his agency to work fast so that any burned timber can be used for higher valued wood products.

Lumber can be made from “fire-killed trees" but only for two years after they are burned, according to the Forest Service.

“Fires were very widespread historically some years and then other years, there would be hardly any,” said Don Falk, an associate professor at the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona. Falk worked at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the university for nine years prior to teaching there.

Falk explained that climate conditions, such as El Niño, facilitate fires. “And in particular, what we tend to see is dry winters…that often is one of the antecedent conditions to a big fire season,” he explained.

Because of the work being done at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, scientists have roughly a 500 year history of how widespread and with what frequency fires have occured.  "So it's a pretty long record," Falk said.

While Falk states that the wildfires this year were "unnaturally severe," he does argue that fire plays a "stabilizing beneficial ecological role."

"It helps to keep forests from getting too dense," he explains. "It actually allows forests to adapt to changing resource availability. It helps to recycle nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus."

Falk's argument is supported by recent research conducted by the U.S. Forest Service which found that intense thinning of forests are the most effective practice to reducing crown fires like the ones we saw this year.

Crown fires refer specifically to the canopy, or crown, of a stand of trees. Crown fires are distinct from surface fires in that they are more severe fires that are typically unnatural and penetrate deeper into the soil that surface fires.

Surface fires burn along the forest floor and are more natural and historically more frequently occuring than crown fires, said Falk. Surface fires can burn for long periods of time before they are eventually extinguished by rain.

The wildfires that ravaged the southwest this year were not all intense crown fires.  "None of these fires are all one thing. They are very very complex events," Falk explained. For example, "the Chiricahua Mountain Range suffered severe localized effects, but they're going to survive."

The local ecosystem adapts itself for fires, Falk explained. Birds, for example, will nest in the openings of burned trees, deer and elk graze on the renewed grass that grows after a fire has cleared old, dried brush.  "Under natural fire conditions, animals either fly away, climb a tree, run around past it, or burrow underground," Falk said.

In the report by the Forest Service, the researchers found that thinning the forests to leave 50 to 100 trees per acre was the most effective practice to reduce the risk of future wildfires. "There are a lot of studies like that. There's no one size fits all prescription," Falk explained. "Numbers like that are fine as long as they're not applied overly broadly. They should be applied in the type of ecosystem that they're developed for."

Photos added to this story on September 21, 2011 courtesy of Don Falk.

Written by Zohra Yaqub You are reading Professor studies ecosystem for future wildfires articles

Stalk us at:

Border Beat on Facebook


Border Beat Blogs

Educación en la Frontera

By: Shannon Maule

A look at higher education in regard to those who have and have not been able to travel from various countries to the United States. Stories from people in the higher education world relating to the border.

A Mosaic America

By: Rachel Kolinski

"Exploring Diversity one Face at a Time"

Dancing in the Desert

By: Hope Jamieson

Explore dance throughout the borderlands.

A City of Musical Diversity

By: Maria Teracena

Tucson musicians influence and are influenced by the sounds of the world.

Culture Crossing

By: Chelsey Barthel

American borders are crossed every day by cultures of all kind. These stories tell the personal experiences of people from different lands, offering further insight into the difference of cultures.

Borderfilmbeat

By: Lauren Inouye

A look at Mexican and Latin films that reflect culture, politics, and society --  reviews, research and analysis.

CaPOWera

By: Charles Misra

Stories about martial arts and combat sports with a cultural twist, all finding a home in America's southwestern borderlands.

Border People

By: Jamie Turow

Profiles of English language learners.

Tear Down Borders

By: Jessica Hoerth

Meet some of the people in Tucson who have made the journey across the border as they share what they came in search of and what struggles they may have encountered along the way.

Border Couture

By: Lauren Urratio

Fashion and how it is impacted by the border and international cultures.

Crossing the Line

By: Lucy Valencia

News from along the border with Mexico

The Border Project

By: Melissa Guz

"The Border Project" is an art showcase located in the University of Arizona's Museum of Art. It has over 40+ art pieces related to border issues.

Athletics and the Border

By: Preston Fawcett

Get to know high school coachs and athletes from Arizona border towns or from Mexico and their struggles to get to where they are.

Border Personalities

By: Audrey A. Fitzsimmons

The Southwest boasts of diverse ethnic backgrounds and a wealth of interesting personalities. Border Personalities is dedicated to the people of the Southwest and their stories.

Border Beats

By: Jeff Kessler

U.S. - Mexico border issues, current events, and interesting local stories

Music of the Border

By: Steven Schiraldi

Music reviews of musical works by Mexican or other ethnic artists.

The Border Wall

By: Brett Haupt

A visual exploration of America’s last frontier -- pictures and videos from different areas of the wall and fence that separate two different worlds and insight into what really stands between the United States and Mexico, ramifications of wall building and what it means for the average citizen.

Border Athletes

By: Lauren Sokol

Meet international student athletes at the University of Arizona, a look at the recruiting process that helped them find a temporary home in the desert, and culture changes that the athletes might have endured.

Journey Across the Border

By: Emily Kjesbo

Spotlighting Mexico’s top travel destinations, as well as a few of its hidden gems.

Border Shots

By: Keith Perfetti

A photojournalist looks at how other photographers have viewed the border and shoots lesser known spots of the southwest.


MLS Soccer comes to the Desert

By: Jeff Kessler

All about the 2012 Desert Diamond Cup,  a 10 day exhibition soccer tournament featuring four Major League Soccor teams coming to Tucson.