Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California
The Mineral King Risk Reduction Project (MKRRP) was initiated out of a need to assess the operational requirements and cost effectiveness of large scale prescribed burning for wildland management in a setting altered by a century of fire suppression. The local objectives of the project are to initiate the reduction of unnatural fuel accumulations (these accumulations can create hazardous conditions for visitors, developments, and natural resources) and begin restoration of ecosystem structure and function within the East Fork drainage of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. However, because the scale of the project is unprecedented, a number of integrated monitoring and research projects were also initiated to assess the impacts and responses of key components of the watershed to prescribed fire. Additional projects have also been initiated to utilize this opportunity to gain additional insights into fire's role in Sierran ecosystems. These projects and their results are important in providing information about short- or long-term resource responses and impacts when burning at this scale, a relatively new management strategy, and whether the planned objectives for the MKRRP are being met. This information will feed back into management planning and permit modification and fine tuning of the burn program in addition to providing information to the public and policy makers.
The MKRRP area encompasses 21,202 ha (52,369 ac) within the East Fork watershed with elevations ranging from 874 m (2,884 ft) to 3,767 m (12,432 ft). Vegetation of the area is diverse, varying from foothills chaparral and hardwood forests at lower elevations to alpine vegetation at elevations above about 3,100 m (10-11,000 ft). About 80% of the watershed is vegetated with most of the remainder being rock outcrops located on steep slopes and at high elevations.
Support for the monitoring and research projects is coming from a variety of sources. Projects funded directly out of the Mineral King Risk Reduction Project include fire effects monitoring, fuel and wildlife inventories, and a study on the relationship between fuel loads and fire impacts on giant sequoia fire scars. Additional projects are being supported from within the Parks and include resampling old vegetation plots and fire history studies. Other projects are using resources from within and the Sequoia and Kings Canyon Field Station (Biological Resources Division of the USGS). These include natural resource inventory, watershed hydrology, stream chemistry. Cooperative research projects are also underway using the dedication, energy, and support of graduate students from several universities (University of California, Davis; University of California, Berkeley).
Several noteworthy observations or findings were made by the monitoring/research projects from 1995 to 1998. The small mammal trapping project found that small mammal populations roughly doubled in the burned sequoia plot compared to preburn population densities. Fire effects plots showed overstory tree mortality varied by vegetation type: 22% red fir forest (ABMA), 50% sequoia mixed-conifer forest (no mortality of overstory sequoias was noted), and 98% in low elevation mixed-conifer forest (CADE). These plots also showed total fuel reductions of 77% (CADE) to 91% (ABMA). A significant increase in giant sequoia seedlings was noted in the burned Atwell sequoia plots. Watershed sampling completed its second full water year of sampling, providing preburn data on trends within the East Fork. Initial results suggest similar annual shifts in flow, pH, and ANC (acid neutralization capacity) when compared to other unburned Sierran watersheds.
Burning in the watershed during 1998 amounted to 142 ha (350 ac) centered in chaparral vegetation near to Lookout Point. This was the first significant area of this type of vegetation burned during the project. A total of 1,346 ha (3,325 ac) have been burned in the watershed since 1995. Burning during 1999 will concentrate on Tar Gap, Deadwood, Redwood, and the Lookout Point chaparral segments.