Dr. Peter Kolb appears on KGVO's Talk Back show once a month and he is also the voice of our daily Forestry Minutes.
Dr. Kolb is the Montana State University Extension Forestry Specialist and an Associate Professor of Forest Ecology & Management, housed at the University of Montana in the Department of Forest Management.
Wildfires and their impact on western landscape conservation as well as communities is a very controversial topic. Some special interest groups believe that what wildfires do is a natural process and we need to let more wildfires burn across forested landscapes. Others see wildfires as a significant threat to both forests and human infrastructure.
"As with most complex topics, simplifying it in order to create a narrative to support your position is a tactic common to today’s political world," Dr. Kolb said. "As a forest scientist working for MSU Extension, my personal and professional goals are to help society understand forest ecology and the role of management."
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Dr. Kolb said this picture series is posted to demonstrate the complex interaction between natural processes such as wildfire, and human management.
"Both have their good and bad qualities," Dr. Kolb said. "By appropriately using both, we can advance our objectives of conserving nature and natural processes, while also providing for human needs that include natural places to recreate in as well as harvesting wood that provide both a material and economic basis for our basic needs. Before we can improve our natural resources practices, we need to fully understand how nature works, and what the role of humans within nature might be."
If you missed the first series of photos, they can be found here.
Below is a new series that Dr. Kolb sent KGVO:
(Top picture): Forests across the lower elevations of this ranch had been thinned to reduce wildfire threat and allow for better grass growth. One section of land (640 acres) in the lower center of the picture is owned by the Forest Service and surrounded by the private ranch land. Although asked, they would not allow the ranch to thin their section of land. When the fire blew across this landscape it did not burn with enough intensity to harm the trees that were on the ranch where thinning had reduced tree density and thus the trees had access to more soil water and were fully hydrated. The trees in the dense Forest Service section where drought stressed from too high tree density, which allowed the fire to catch the trees to catch on fire - creating a perfect black 640 acre burned forest square in the middle of the thinned ranch land.
When the wildfire burned into the larger block for densely treed forest service lands it quickly turned into a crown fire, seen as the large black area on the mountainside. But why did the surrounding forest not burn? Or maybe it did burn but not as a crown fire?
(Top picture): When I reached the Forest Service lands where the forest appeared to have not burned - (not in the black patch) it became evident that the fire had burned mainly through the understory in the dead fine fuels. A deep snowpack last winter had left the larger fuels (dead logs) too wet to burn other than a thin outer layer that had dried out. Thus the fire only burned as an understory fire where it appears the forest had not burned.
(Bottom picture):Had these larger fuels been drier - the entire mountainside would have supported a hotter fire that would have turned the entire forest black. This is however, not a good thing as the understory fire was hot enough to kill the green trees by overheating the lower stems. This is lodgepole pine that has thin bark and very poor resistance to fire. The trees just don't know they are dead yet. In this case, the fire has added to the fuel loading in this forest, setting the stage for an extremely severe future wildfire. Those green patches you see now will turn orange over the winter and next summer you will see black patches surrounded by dead orange patches as the green needles run out of water because the lower stem that supplies them with water was killed by the heat of the surface fire.
(Top picture): Fire moves through both convection (super heated gases rising) and radiation (heat from a hot source much like standing next to a hot wood stove. When a fire burns uphill it spreads through both convection and radiation, causing to move quickly and with the effects of a blowtorch. The outlined clear-cut in this picture was exposed to hot gases for some time before the fire reached it, which dried out live trees in its path and allowed them to burn while trees outside the path of the fire remained well hydrated and not as flammable. The following pictures give you a closer view of both the blackened areas as well as the trees surrounding the clear-cut that appeared not to burn.
(Bottom picture): View from the blackened forest just below the clear-cut looking uphill into the area of the clear-cut that burned (on the right) and clear-cut that did not burn (on the left).
(Top picture): The forest around the clearcut that was not blackened and appearing to have escaped the fire from a distance burned severely in the surface. Enough heat was generated by the surface fire to kill all of the trees even though the fire did not jump into the crowns. Unlike ponderosa pine or larch that has thick bark that offers some limited protection to living tissue in the stem, lodgepole pine has very thin bark and is easily killed by surface fires. Within 15 year most of these trees will have fallen over and create an enormous fuel load that will allow for an even more severe fire to once again burn through this area.
(Bottom picture): Along the side of the clearcut one can see how the fire burned with significant heat in the understory. Only the conditions of the younger trees in the clearcut kept the fire out and are now the only trees on this mountainside to have survived the fire.
(Top picture): Conditions in the clearcut looking out into the burned area.
(Bottom Picture): A landscape shot from inside the clearcut looking out to the surrounding burned forest.
Woods Creek fire – impacts on Limber pine.
Wildfire is often viewed as a renewer of forests, thought for some species this does not hold true. Limber pine is a valuable wildlife tree because of the large nutritious seeds it produces. As a member of the 5-needle pine family Limber pine is susceptible to the introduced disease white pine blister rust and native mountain pine beetle. The pine beetle outbreak of 2005-2012 caused extensive mortality among old Limber pines across the state. Luckily these old trees had produced enough seeds to allow for ample regeneration of younger trees that can be seen in this first picture, ensuring that a future Limber pine forest would once again occupy this mountain ridge.
However, the high fuel loading associated with such high beetle mortality allowed for the Woods creek fire to burn with enough intensity to kill all of the regeneration as is seen in this retake of the same tree and location after the fire. Limber pine has little fire resistance, and thus the wildfire has essentially removed Limber pine as a component within the wildfire perimeter. The only tree species that has survived this intensity of fire will be lodgepole pine, that protects its seeds within a sealed cone. The fire in this case is not an ecosystem renewal mechanism, but a species eliminator. With luck, Clarks nutcracker may hide some Limber pine seeds from a distant source on this rocky slope in the future, however a lot depends on how far away the nearest clump of live seed bearing trees exists. The larger the expanse of the fire, the less likely seed sources will be nearby. Why retaining a clumpy mosaic of forest conditions – some of which are less flammable - on a landscape is so important for conserving these ecosystems.
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