Fire Related Research Opportunities

Over the last 40 years research on fire or the lack of fire in Sierran ecosystems has played a vital role in the development of ecologically based fire management planning and the implementation of the burn program within Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The need for additional research remains as new questions arise and old questions remain unanswered. Fire research may be directed at answering questions related to short-term, specific operations or resource issues or at big picture ecosystem wide problems that may have long-term or far reaching implications for park management. Specific research questions may be addressed by park staff, staff from other agencies (e.g. USGS), or by outside researchers. Current research needs focus on obtaining a better understanding spatial and temporal patterns of past fire regimes, the effects of fire intensity and frequency on fuel accumulation and on forest structure and dynamics, and the many effects of variable fire intensities and return intervals as well as fire suppression, on vegetation, fauna, pathogens and other ecosystem properties. The question of the extent to which vegetation and fuels vary from their natural range has been difficult to determine yet remains a key factor for guiding fire management decisions. The following specific fire related research needs have been identified:

  • Fire Research Needs

  • Specific Potential Fire Research Projects

Links to a list of current fire related studies in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and general information on conducting research in National Parks (including information on the National Park Service permit and reporting system and potential funding sources). For further information contact Tony Caprio, Sequoia & Kings Canyon Fire Ecologist, or call 1-559-565-3126.

Fire Research Needs

  • Role of Fire in Sierran Ecosystems

1. Improve the Reliability of Information Used to Derive Desired Structural and Process Goals. - These conditions were established by the November 1998 Sacramento workshop "Setting Resource Objectives for Fire Management Plans" and have been compiled for Sequoia and Kings Canyon by Keifer and others. Defining the desired goals, used in this ecosystem management process, requires an understanding of basic reference conditions at various landscape levels. Currently our knowledge of these reference conditions has poor resolution and only provides a broad target window for fire management planning. At this time, of the two goals, past process conditions can probably be more easily and reliably reconstructed.

a) Structural Goals - These goals include landscape pattern, physical and biological attributes of stand structure, and their drivers. These information needs encompass pre-Euroamerican settlement tree ages and age distributions, species diversity, size structure by vegetation type, gap and patch size, shape and arrangement on the landscape, species composition, and burn severity by topographic position. A variety of sources may potentially provide this information including historic photography, TM images, and field investigations. Changes in attributes such as species diversity could be obtained by investigating changes pre-/post-fire, after multiple burns in an area, and by following burns with differences in seasonal timing and burn intervals (also see cross-scale burn severity below).

b) Process Goals - These goals include an understanding of the attributes of pre-Euroamerican settlement fire regimes, drivers of these regimes, and the relationship between these and other agents of change. While considerable fire history sampling has been carried out within the parks (Kilgore and Taylor 1979; Pitcher 1987; Swetnam and others 1992; Swetnam and Caprio 1995; Swetnam and others 1998; Caprio 1999) many significant gaps still exist in our knowledge (Caprio and Lineback 1997). Information needs include obtaining an improved understanding of the historic size, frequency, type, and intensity of fire, and a comparison of the extent of historic fire patterns across the landscape and for the various vegetation types within the parks. Additionally, an evaluation of the constraints imposed by the presence of modern park developments and park neighbors is needed. This information will help define areas where the restoration of the historic fire regime and patterns may be constrained.

2. Fire Ecology of Low Elevation Mixed Conifer and Hardwood Forests. - Research is needed to better understand the role of fire in the transition zone between the foothill chaparral and the mixed conifer forests. This should include studies of fire history, fuel loading, and vegetation structure and succession, as well as modeling of fuels, fire behavior and fire spread. This key zone between the highly flammable foothill and sensitive sequoia forests is extremely important to the overall fire management strategy of the parks.

3. Subalpine Forest Fire Ecology. - Despite an active program of allowing natural fires to burn in the higher elevations of the Parks little is known about fire history and effects in most of these ecosystems. Such data is needed for lodgepole pine, red fir and other subalpine forest types as well as for subalpine meadows which comprise a significant portion of the parks' vegetation. Our current knowledge of fire effects in these types is largely confined to studies of limited extent carried out by Kilgore (1972), Pitcher (1980, 1987) or presently underway by Battles and Newburn (2000) and Caprio (2000).

  • Fire Modeling and Data Needs.

1. Fire Behavior Modeling - Modeling for the prediction of fire behavior, such as the BEHAVE/FARSITE systems, and the development of Geographic Information Surveys for the storage of fuels data

2. Historic Fire Spread Patterns - Model fire spread patterns of fires originating from ignition starts that have occurred over last X number of years to see whether burn patterns/frequency correspond to pre-Euroamerican patterns or does the data suggest Native American burning was important.

  • Air Quality

Research is needed to determine the number of acres that can be burned without violating air quality regulations. Monitoring equipment is needed to establish baseline particulate loading in park airsheds and what is the contribution of the parks burn program. By knowing how many pounds of particulates or CO are produced per ton of any given fuel, and by studying the indicators of good and bad smoke dispersion days, improved prescriptions may be written for smoke management, as is done for fire behavior and effects.

  • Watershed Impacts

A better understanding of both transitory and long term effects on watershed features related to the presence or absence of fire. Included would be hydrologic and sedimention impacts, stream chemistry, and changes in soils. Studies are needed that provide results from replicated watersheds in a variety of setting such as differing vegetation and parent material.

  • Wildlife

1) Several potential research/resource study projects for examing the relationship between fire and wildlife. These include:

2) Fire or absence of fire and its effects on particular wildlife species. Particular taxa would include terrestrial amphibians, bats, spotted owls, and fishers.

3) Historic role of fire in maintaining winter range of bighorn sheep in the Kern and Big Arroyo drainages. For example, did fire historically keep areas open that are now very brushy? This could be addressed by either looking at historic photos or by reconstructing the fire history of the area.

4) What are the effects of tussock moth on forest structure, composition, and fuels relative to prescribed burns? Do these effects differ between areas burned prior to the moth outbreak?

  • Fire Effects on Sensitive or Endangered Species

Fire effects or the effect of the lack of fire on sensitive or endangered plants and animals within the parks. Long-term effects of fire on sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) in relation to the impacts of the exotic blister-rust needs to be better understood. Wildlife species might include fishers, spotted owls, or Sierra bighorn sheep. For example, recent interest has been expressed on the relationship between fire and bighorn sheep habitat. Potential investigation might include looking at change in habitat and foraging behavior that might occur with future fires and understanding the relationship between fire and sheep habitat in the past (prior to Euroamerican settlement).

  • Exotic Plants/Animals and Fire

While dramatic changes in most low elevation grasslands occurred over a century ago new invasions or potential invasions of exotic species are still occurring or threaten. For example, in the last three years the widespread occurrence and dominance of cheatgrass has become apparent. While multiple factors are usually important in the spread, establishment, and dominance of these invasive species fire can sometimes have a significant role. Studies are needed to investigate the role of fire in association with other factors in the spread of established or threatening exotics. In general, studies are needed to determine:

- strategies to detect the presence and changes in exotics over time

- what are the interactions between fire and other management practices (roads/stock etc.) on establishment and spread of exotic species

- and can methods be developed to eliminate particular exotic species at least retard their spread

  • Fire Restoration Needs

A long-term examination of fire restoration potential is needed. For example, at what interval can fires occur in various vegetation types and still maintain the character and integrity of the ecosystem. Can we maintain systems that burned at 5 year intervals historically with a 10 year fire return interval? Additionally, how important is the fire return interval distribution of fire (Bond and Wilgen 1995) or the variation in intervals rom fire-to-fire? Again can we use patterns that are different from pre-settlement patterns and still maintain ecosystem integrity. These extend the JFS Fire and Fire Surrogates work currently underway within the parks.

Specific Potential Fire Research Projects

  • Resample Sequoia Gap/Disturbance Sites established by Athena Demetry

Canopy openings, or gaps, caused by overstory mortality following locally-intense fire are sites of concentrated regeneration of pioneer-type tree and shrub species, particularly giant sequoia. In 1994, woody vegetation was mapped in 18 fire-caused gaps in sizes ranging from 0.067 to 1.17 hectare, and ages from 7 to 15 years since fire. The results of this 1994 study found higher densities of pioneer-type species in large gaps, higher densities and faster growth in gap centers than at edges, and clumped spatial patterns of growth. How this initial suite of vegetation might change following a second fire in these gaps poses many questions. Do the most spatially-heterogenous gaps have the lowest fire-caused mortality? How do species compositions, densities, and spatial patterns change? Do only the tallest seedlings growing in gap centers survive?

There is now an opportunity to begin answering these questions. Since 1996, eight of these initial 18 gaps have been reburned (three small gaps, two medium gaps, and three large gaps). By remapping and remeasuring the vegetation in these reburned gaps, we will begin to form a more dynamic picture of the role and importance of fire-caused gaps in the dynamics of the giant sequoia-mixed conifer forest.

There is the potential that researchers could use and obtain training on the Park's total station, which was used in the initial mapping project and is a major expense to rent. Estimated field time is two months for two workers.


  • Regeneration Within Canopy Gaps in a Giant Sequoia-Mixed Conifer Forest: Implications for Forest Restoration. Demetry, A. 1995. M.S. thesis. Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ.
  • A Natural Disturbance Model for the Restoration of Giant Forest Village, Sequoia National Park. Demetry, A. 1998. In: W.R. Keammerer and E.F. Redente, (eds.) In: Proceedings of High Altitude Revegetation Workshop, No. 13, pp.142-159. Fort Collins: Colorado Water Resources Research Institute, Information Series No. 89.

Last updated: August 30, 2023

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