Fire Effects Monitoring

Fire effects staff monitori vegetation along the transect line
Fire effects staff, Colleen Egan and Chris Kopek, monitor vegetation along a transect.

NPS/V Nalamalapu

On a warm mid-summer’s day, Rocky Mountain National Park’s Fire Effects Crew and I sat underneath a tall ponderosa, where a steady breeze wafted the pine’s warm, vanilla scent towards us. As our lunches disappeared, our eyes began to drift towards the 20x50 meter monitoring plot just a few strides away. Chris, the Lead Monitor, cleared his throat. In a hushed voice, he professed that, if I were to leave with one take away, it should be that, no matter how long you look at a plot, it won’t do itself.
Fire effects staff lays out measuring tape for transect
Colleen Egan lays out measuring tapes to delineate transects within the plot.

NPS/V Nalamalapu

The monitoring plot is in a ponderosa savannah, which was last burned by a prescribed fire in 2003. It is one of 102 plots that the crew is monitoring. The purpose of this monitoring is to understand how prescribed fires affect vegetation. In part as a result of their work, we know that prescribed fires minimize fuel load and promote ecosystem diversity, but they do so differently depending on fire frequency and severity. Thus, future prescribed fires should use fire frequencies and severities that best minimize fuel load and best promote ecosystem diversity. The Fire Effects Crew’s monitoring is focused on doing just that.
Fire effects staff photographs plot
Fire effects monitoring staff photograph each plot at specific photo points to compare over time.

NPS/V Nalamalapu

With this focus in mind, we soon found ourselves surrounded by a web of measuring tapes. Josh, one of the Fire Effects Monitors, walked the perimeter of the plot, photographing it from different positions. These photographs are used to visually assess and communicate changes in the plot’s ecology, including vegetation quantities and qualities (species, vigor, etc.). Chris and Colleen, the other Fire Effects Monitor, began by collecting soil measurements, and then transitioned into collecting tree measurements. Soil measurements include the depth of different soil layers, which indicate how the soil may affect fire severity. Tree measurements include tree height and diameter, which indicate how the prescribed fire affected and is still affecting growth.

At any moment, this work could be forced to a halt; the crew also responds to fires, which leads to situations where plots are abandoned and tapes are cast aside—a less than ideal situation that, if not rectified by nightfall, could result in coyote pups gnawing at the tapes (an adorable thought, but not a good situation for anyone involved).

This dual monitoring and fire response role is not ubiquitous across parks, yet it is extremely valuable. Not only do the knowledge and skills that the crew develops in each role help them in the other, but their dual roles also allow them to serve as liaisons between the vegetation and fire crews. It is relationships such as these that create unity and strength in the National Park Service, even if they give rise to the occasional tattered measuring tape and guilty coyote pup.

This article was researched and written by Vishva Nalamalapu, Mosaics-in-Science Science Communication intern with the Continental Divide Research Learning Center.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Last updated: August 13, 2019