UM Lands Grant to Study History of Large Wildfires in Rocky Mountains

August 01, 2017

MISSOULA – Researchers at the University of Montana will reconstruct the causes and ecosystem impacts of large wildfires in the Rocky Mountains over the past 2,500 years, thanks to a new grant from the National Science Foundation.

Led by Phil Higuera, associate professor of fire ecology in UM’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, the four-year, $860,000 award will help researchers at UM, the University of Idaho, Kansas State University and the University of Wyoming reconstruct the fire and climate history in two study areas in the northern and southern Rockies.

Researchers say the study will lead to better understanding of the importance of large fires in the past, the impacts they had on the forests of the region and the role large fires may play in the future.

“We want to better understand how large fire events, like the ‘Big Burn’ in 1910 that affected large portions of Montana and Idaho, impact ecosystems – and if and how long it takes ecosystems to recover from those types of events,” Higuera said.

Wildfires affect nearly 70,000 square miles in the United States every year – much of that in the West in the Rocky Mountains, the number of large wildfires has increased rapidly since the mid-1980s, a trend linked to warming spring and summer temperatures that will likely continue in upcoming decades.

The new study will help place recent and current trends in the long-term context of the past 2,500 years, revealing the precedence of ongoing fire activity and helping scientists learn more about how ecosystems may respond to future big burns.

Large fires also determine the amount and availability of carbon in the region, as well as other key nutrients forests require to regenerate. Current models used to assess ecosystem status and carbon budgets might overestimate the amount of carbon bound up in landscapes if they neglect to incorporate the impacts of infrequent but large wildfires. Improving those models becomes more important as large fire events become more common.

Researchers will use the sediments deposited in the bottom of lakes to reconstruct the environmental history of small mountain watersheds by looking at pollen, charcoal and other proxies of past environmental conditions. At UM, Higuera and graduate student Kyra Wolf will focus on developing these records from 12 sites along the Montana-Idaho border to characterize the frequency, severity and timing of past fire activity. Those records will be compared to records of vegetation and ecosystem change to assess the impacts of past fires.

The project also includes a unique collaboration with the UM School of Journalism’s Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism graduate program. A student from the program will embed with the research team to document the work and learn more about the process of reporting on scientific research and findings.

For more information call Higuera at 406-243-6337 or email philip.higuera@umontana.edu.  

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Contact: Phil Higuera, associate professor of fire ecology, W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation at UM, 406-243-6337, philip.higuera@umontana.edu.