Wildland Fire Science in Forests and Deserts

Science Center Objects

Fuel conditions and fire regimes in western forests and deserts have been altered due to past land management, biological invasions, and recent extreme weather events and climate shifts. These changes have created extreme fire risk to local and regional communities, threatening their economic health related to wildland recreation, forest production, livestock operations, and other uses of public lands. Dr. Matthew Brooks and his staff at the Yosemite-Oakhurst Field Station develop science products to help understand why these changes are occurring and what land managers can do to mitigate their negative effects. They communicate this information to land managers through direct relationships, workshops, shared databases, and interagency working groups. The information is communicated and archived for use by the general scientific community through journal articles, books, fact sheets, scientific meetings, and involvement by Dr. Brooks and his staff in the Association for Fire Ecology.

WERC Forest fire management in Yosemite using prescribed burning
Forest fire management in Yosemite using prescribed burning.(Credit: Yosemite National Park staff. Public domain.)

In western forests, fire is both a critical natural ecosystem process, and at times a hazard to human life, infrastructure, and resource values. It is well known that past aggressive fire suppression has resulted in abnormal fuel accumulations and extreme fire risk. Various fire management actions have been implemented during the recent decades to increase forest resilience and restore more desirable fire regimes. However, the most effective actions for specific conditions to achieve specific management goals remain largely unknown. Science is needed to answer these questions, and examples addressed at the Yosemite-Oakhurst Field Station include:

  1. Which fire management actions have most affected fire behavior, severity, and forest resilience?
  2. What is the amount and stability of carbon sequestered within tree biomass and how does fire management affect these dynamics?
  3. How does fire affect sensitive species such as the federally threatened Yosemite toad (Anaxyrus canorus) and Candidate Species California spotted owl (Strix occidentalis occidentalis)?
  4. What is the role of fire, coupled with other factors including climate, in promoting plant invasions and leading to range shifts in native vegetation?

Staff at the Yosemite-Oakhurst Field Station help to integrate this information into fire management plans through direct interaction with fire planners and other collaborations facilitated through Dr. Brooks’ co-chairing of the Interagency Southern Sierra Nevada Fire Science Integration Working Group.

Wildfire in the Mid-Elevation Mojave Desert
Fire moving through a mid-elevation community dominated by red brome. This was the third time in the last 40 years this area had burned.(Credit: Bureau of Land Management, Caliente Field Office staff. Public domain.)

In western deserts, fire has been historically infrequent and is generally considered an ecosystem stressor and threat to human and natural communities. Plant invasions coupled with climate variation have fundamentally changed fuels and fire behavior in ways that have altered fire regimes from historical norms. Although these changes are widespread in desert regions, their magnitude and severity can vary widely among major vegetation types. Science is needed to understand when, where, and how fire may be a threat, and what can be done to mitigate those threats. Examples of critical fire management questions addressed at the Yosemite-Oakhurst Field Station include:

  1. What are the effects of individual fires and fire regimes on species and ecosystems?
  2. What were the historical patterns of fire and fire regime attributes and how have they recently changed in desert regions?
  3. Do these changes pose threats to natural and human communities?
  4. What role do plant invasions have in changing fire regimes?
  5. What management actions can be implemented to mitigate these changes and threats?
  6. Will these changes and threats become more or less widespread and problematic in the future?

Dr. Brooks and his staff have served as a primary source of fire science information for federal land managers in the Mojave Desert since the 1990s and have increasingly been called upon for fire management guidance in the Great Basin desert during the 2000s. They are currently collaborating with the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management to provide much of the science behind spatial fire management plans for federal lands in the Mojave Desert.