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MSU Teach to Evaluate Forest Resilience, Wildfire Recovery
Michigan Ag Connection - 07/07/2020

Jessica Miesel, an assistant professor in the Michigan State University Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, is leading a team that received a $454,000 grant from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to explore the ability of forests to be resilient and recover from forest fires.

CAL FIRE contracts with local governments to protect 31 million acres of privately owned land across 36 of California's 58 counties.

Although common to California, wildfires have increased in scale and intensity in recent years. According to CAL FIRE, the 2018 fire season was the most destructive on record. More than 8,500 fire incidents occurred across nearly 1.9 million acres, killing more than 100 civilians and firefighters. As of late June 2020, more than 3,100 fire incidents have affected roughly 19,000 acres with no recorded fatalities this year.

Miesel, who also holds an appointment in the MSU Department of Forestry, is a fire ecologist specializing in forest management practices that promote resilience and recovery. She is particularly interested in conifer forests that rely on fire, and the effects burn severity has on nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen.

Fire plays a pivotal role in these ecosystems, including cycling nutrients, preparing the soil for new vegetation and rejuvenating wildlife habitat. But fires that burn at high intensities can cause irreparable harm.

"Coniferous forests need fire, but it's a delicate balance," Miesel said. "Historically, these fires have burned at low or moderate intensity, which doesn't kill the trees. However, we're finding that higher intensities in recent years are damaging forests' ability to recover. We want to understand what factors are causing this and what can be done to mitigate it."

Miesel said the danger is that high-intensity fires will inhibit conifer forest recovery, potentially causing a transformation to a non-forest ecosystem such as grasslands. This diminishes the ecosystem services provided by the forest, including carbon sequestration and wildlife habitat. Forest products also contribute more than $1 billion to the California economy.

"California has put a high priority on managing forests to improve their resilience to fire as the state experiences longer droughts and higher temperatures," Miesel said. "Given the tremendous amount of carbon stored in forests, we want to know how to manage forests to survive wildfires. This helps avoid carbon emissions during fires and keeps forests healthy so they can continue to sequester carbon long into the future.

"But we don't have much information on post-fire outcomes in these forests due to a lack of field-based data on fire behavior, and how it influences future forest vegetation and potential fire fuels."

Partnering with colleagues Matthew Dickinson, Eric Knapp and Alicia Reiner in the U.S. Forest Service, Miesel will be investigating changes in forest biomass and carbon pre- and post-fire using existing data from wildfires that occurred in California during the past 17 years.

The team will then characterize poor wildfire outcomes that factor in climate conditions, weather, physical setting, fuels and fire behavior.

Finally, they will collect new measurements at these sites to evaluate forest recovery.

"The idea is to use these study sites to see how various forest conditions affected fire intensity and tree survival," Miesel said. "Understanding how we can shift to management strategies geared toward better resilience is critical to long-term health and viability of these forests. The information we learn will be applicable to areas around the country where fire-prone forests are present, including Michigan."

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