Fire Stories

Fire stories from the national parks highlight events, incidents, and the like, associated with fire and fuels management, as well as fire education, technology, partnerships, and more. Stories highlight work related to Department of the Interior initiatives as well as local and regional initiatives.

Exploring Fuels Treatment and Wildfire Impacts in Alaska

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
Cohesive Strategy—Fire-Adapted Human Communities, Maintain and Restore Landscapes*

What happens to an Alaskan forest when fire management conducts a thinning project? What happens when a forest is burned multiple times by wildfire in a short time period? The goal of the Alaska Region Fire Ecology Program is to delve into these questions and provide adaptive management feedback to fire and land managers. Five fire ecology projects provide good examples of the breadth and depth of a safe, productive, and successful 2011 field season which was focused on trying to answer the above questions.

When fire management implements a thinning project to reduce the wildfire risk to structures, the fire ecology program often conducts a corresponding monitoring project to ensure that management goals are met. In 2011 the fire ecology program orchestrated two monitoring field trips to thinning projects bordering Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The first project is located in the wildland urban interface near McCarthy, a small town perched on the edge of expansive parklands. Pre-treatment monitoring was conducted early in the summer, the thinning treatment was implemented in late summer, and post-treatment monitoring will occur in 2012. The second project was post-treatment monitoring of plots located in a thinned area near Wrangell-St. Elias headquarters. Project results will be presented after treatment and monitoring completion in 2012.

Dense forest before treatment
Thinned forest after treatment

Top and Bottom: Forest before and after thinning project. NPS photos

Thirteen percent of the area burned in Alaska in the past 60 years has burned more than once, including several long-term monitoring plots established by the fire ecology program. This coincidence provided a unique opportunity to track vegetation response to multiple fire events at varying levels of severity at ten plots in Denali National Park and Preserve and four plots in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Preliminary analyses suggest that multiple fire events at high levels of burn severity can lead to a forest community type conversion not evident at lower levels of severity. For example, a spruce forest burned twice at a high level of severity is now a young deciduous forest with little resemblance to the pre-fire community.

During the fifth project for 2011, a fire ecologist and crew assessed burn severity and vegetation composition at five of the 37 fires that occurred in Noatak National Preserve in 2010. In most areas monitored, burn severity was low to moderate, and tundra vegetation was already re-sprouting in 2011; cotton-grass tussocks bloomed vibrantly within one year of the fires. Data was also collected to assess the age of the soil carbon that may be burned in tundra fires in Noatak. This may help determine whether tundra fires burn old or recent carbon stored in the organic soils of tundra.

Contact: Jennifer Barnes or Jennifer McMillan, Alaska Region Fire Ecology Program

Email: jennifer_barnes@nps.gov, jennifer_mcmillan@nps.gov

Phone: (907) 455-0656; (907) 356-5691

*This story supports the Department of the Interior initiatives.