Fires Work Wonders in Forested Ecosystems: Case Studies from Australia, United States, and Europe

C-08 Managing Forest for Fire in a Changing Climate

Source: USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station Archive, Bugwood.org
Source: USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station Archive, Bugwood.org

Fires are potent land management tools that humans have employed to tame the landscapes they have inhabited for thousands of years.

The main thrust for this session, comprising both oral and posters, discussed and shared experiences on the role that prescribed fires play in forests in terms of their impact on species composition, carbon balance, and the overall state of the ecosystems in which they occur. Speaker upon speaker highlighted the critical role that prescribed/controlled burns play, especially towards reducing fuel loads that could otherwise build up and cause catastrophic fires in the future.

The bulk of the experiences for this session came from southeastern Australia with Cristina Aponte exploring the effects of repeated prescribed burns on above-ground carbon stocks. Her results showed significant decreases in carbon stocks within measured plots, while the control plots had the highest carbon. Additionally, there were no significant changes in the soil carbon. The overriding message from this study highlights the fact that there is a cost associated with prescribed burning that might be applied in the management of different forest ecosystems.

Christopher Chick shared a similar presentation, but focused more on how prescribed burns could alter the forested landscape in the next 100 years under different burn scenarios. Thomas Fairman looked at how mega-fires, prevalent in southeastern Australia, could impact the Eucalyptus-dominated temperate forest, and concluded that indeed these fires would cause major shifts in species composition, with implications on future fuel loads.

Research from the United States was interesting in the sense that it shifted from the traditional focus on fuel load build-ups and targeted how mulching treatments could affect grass cover, exotic plant invasions, and general biodiversity especially of understory species. Mulching, which involves the on-site shredding of unwanted trees by heavy machinery, is novel procedure that is gaining prominence as a management tool, but baseline data are not readily available. Although depended on site conditions, Ms. Fornwalt’s presentation showed that this could be a promising methodology in forestry applications, as she found that mulching significantly increased gramminoids and forb cover, exotic species establishments (but keep an eye on these!!), and increased seed bank density, especially within sites dominated by ponderosa pines.

Finally, a study from Ukraine highlighted how the creation of fuel and hydrologic maps could be crucial for fire fighters in countries within the Black Sea region, especially because these entities have limited firefighting capacity.

These studies give us a glimpse into the potential that good fire management practices could have on our forests, but as Ms. Cristina Aponte put it, every fire has a carbon cost associated with it. How well we try to deal with the fire will determine if a fire can work wonders, or unleash great havoc to our forest systems.

Written by: Humphrey Kalibo

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