Sometime later this month or in early November, if the weather cooperates, the U.S. Forest Service will fly a pair of fire-spitting helicopters over a remote mountain in southern Utah and set the forest ablaze.
While the helicopters are pelting burning liquid fuel at the treetops, dozens of firefighters will be providing support on the ground, using drip torches and flamethrowers to create a towering wall of flame that will stretch from the forest floor to the sky. As the heat builds and the blaze roars across spruce- and fir-stippled canopies, a small army of scientists will launch weather balloons and drones, drive radar- and LIDAR-equipped trucks around the perimeter, fly specialized research planes overhead, and gather data on fire-hardened GoPro cameras to analyze the inferno from start to finish.
It will be among the fiercest controlled burns scientists have ever studied in the wild—“as close to a wildfire as you can expect,” says Roger Ottmar, the principal investigator for the Forest Service–led Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE). The goal? To collect data on every aspect of the fire at once, in order to improve the models scientists and land managers use to predict the impacts of fires. That will allow the agency to oversee more controlled burns on landscapes that need fire to thrive, and the data will also provide insight into the large, intense blazes that keep erupting across the West—the types of unruly fires that climate change and changing land-use patterns are making more common.
“The more experiments we can do, the better we can understand fire behavior in a changing climate,” says Craig Clements, the director of the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San Jose State University and the science lead for FASMEE’s plume-dynamics and meteorology team. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
The opportunity exists only because of the very specific ecological challenges facing Fishlake National Forest’s Monroe Mountain. The upcoming burn is part of a larger restoration project the Forest Service launched back in 2015 to revive the area’s ailing aspens, explains Linda Chappell, the regional fuels program manager. These trees, which provide food and shelter for a wide array of animals, including elk, rabbits, porcupines, beavers, and countless birds, have been declining across the West for decades due in part to overgrazing by deer and livestock. Drought and disease have hit hard, too. And aspens, a clonal species, need wildfires to cue their roots to put out new “suckers,” or sprouts. Around Monroe Mountain, the frequency of wildfires has dropped dramatically over the past century, allowing a mix of conifer species to slowly take over.
One of the most effective ways to bring aspens back is to ignite a “crown fire”: a really big, really hot fire that jumps from treetop to treetop and sends flames writhing upward into the sky. The work is being done piecemeal over the course of a decade in order to introduce as much variation as possible into the mountain ecosystem. “We want a crazy quilt of aspen ages and a crazy quilt of conifer ages,” Chappell says. Because these prescribed crown fires are so similar to wildfires in terms of their intensity, the restoration project served as the ideal natural laboratory for FASMEE to piggyback onto.
By Kate Groetzinger
The word wildfire tends to invoke fear, but some wildfires are actually good. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Peavine and Poison Canyon fires currently burning in the Manti-La Sal National Forest will help the environment and act as future fire suppressants.
The Peavine Canyon Fire started July 16, while the Poison Canyon Fire started 10 days later. Together, they have burned around 5,000 acres in San Juan County.
Lightning started both fires, according to Forest Service spokeswoman Heather McLean. But rather than rushing to extinguish them, the agency has opted for a management strategy that involves letting them burn.
“The start was far back in the wilderness where there weren’t any values at risk, like people’s homes or infrastructure,” McLean said.
Firefighters have been helping the flames along, said Monticello District Ranger Michael Diem. More than 100 personnel are assigned to Peavine and Poison Canyons, and they have been lighting small, controlled fires along roads and trails to create buffer zones to stop the wildfire’s spread, as well as lighting small fires inside these boundaries to encourage burning.
McLean said the Forest Service doesn’t expect the fires to grow much bigger. They’ll stop as they approach these buffers and continue to burn internally.
“They will naturally burn themselves out as the thunderstorms go across, and it will actually work quite well,” she said.
Because of the conditions resulting from a wet spring and good snowpack, the fires aren’t destroying everything in their path. They are burning in a “mosaic” pattern, according to McLean, and will leave behind plenty of healthy foliage.
“People have an idea that when fires burn — everything is black,” she said. “But fires that burn naturally in the right conditions don’t burn like that. They just burn in places where there’s fuel.”
Diem said fires like this benefit the overall health of the forest. They open up areas for elk and deer to forage, as well as for hawks and Mexican spotted owls to hunt. The fires are also creating a patchwork of burned out areas that will act as buffers for wildfires later in the season.
By JoAnna Klein
The grove of 47,000 quivering aspen trees in Utah is being diminished by mule deer, foraging cattle and human mismanagement.
On 106 acres in Fishlake National Forest in Richfield, Utah, a 13-million-pound giant has been looming for thousands of years. But few people have ever heard of him.
This is “the Trembling Giant,” or Pando, from the Latin word for “I spread.” A single clone, and genetically male, he is the most massive organism on Earth. He is a forest of one: a grove of some 47,000 quivering aspen trees — Populus tremuloides — connected by a single root system, and all with the same DNA.
But this majestic behemoth may be more of a Goliath, suggests a study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE. Threatened by herds of hungry animals and human encroachment, Pando is fighting a losing battle.
The study, consisting of recent ground surveys and an analysis of 72 years of aerial photographs, revealed that this unrealized natural treasure and keystone species — with hundreds of dependents — is shrinking. And without more careful management of the forest, and the mule deer and cattle that forage within him, the Trembling Giant will continue to dwindle.
…The BLM and the U.S. Forest Service share the job of forming a management plan for all 1.35 million acres of Bears Ears National Monument. It’s a new approach for the respective agencies in Utah, where prior monuments have been the exclusive purview of either the National Park Service, as with Natural Bridges, Timpanogos Cave, Cedar Breaks, Hovenweep, Rainbow Bridge and Dinosaur National Monuments, or the BLM with the sprawling Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The Manti-La Sal National Forest is already nine months into the process of updating a decades-old forest management plan. That process is estimated to last three to five years. The Bears Ears management plan could take just as long, though the people responsible hope to expedite the effort.
During that time, staff from both agencies will solicit public input and craft policies governing the future of all uses on the public lands within Bears Ears’ boundaries. The proclamation instructs the agencies to give special consideration to input from a tribal commission, though the Forest Service and BLM will have the final say on any decisions.