Prescribed Fire at Wildlife Refuge Fuels Research for Computational Sciences Students

Posted: March 13, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Prescribed burn at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge
A firefighter monitors a prescribed burn at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

By Tara Laskowski

Normally, if a fire breaks out during a field trip, it’s a bad sign.

Last month, however, graduate students studying wildland fire management found that fire illuminated their research. Traveling to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, Md., the students were able to witness a prescribed burn of 300 acres of marshland.

The team, members of the EastFIRE Lab established at George Mason last year to research wildland fires in the Eastern United States, donned bright yellow fire safety suits and went on-site to watch the controlled burn. As the flames licked the sky, students observed the dispersion of the smoke plume and learned about safety measures from Refuge GIS Biologist Roger Stone.

“This was the first fire I’ve seen, either wild or prescribed,” says Manny Smith, a research assistant of the Center for Earth Observing and Space Research in the School of Computational Sciences (SCS).

“It was really interesting to see how the firefighters made the lines for the boundaries of the fire and how they walked around right near it. That was kind of scary, actually.”

Fire has been used for more than 60 years to manage Blackwater’s wetlands. Fire removes vegetation that is not particularly helpful to the wildlife in the area and stimulates the growth of vegetation that is beneficial. It also reduces the risk to human life and property loss caused by wildfires and increases the overall health of the wetlands.

“The fire is done under set conditions in ideal weather situations to remove the build-up of fuels that can lead to dangerous wildfires,” says William Sommers, director of the EastFIRE Lab. “For our students, it was beneficial to see the actual process and to witness what they are studying and researching.”

SCS students and faculty
SCS students and faculty outfitted for the burn.
Photos courtesy EastFIRE Lab

Making It Real

John Qu, technical director of the EastFIRE Lab, led the EastFIRE team at Blackwater. The consensus of the group, made up of mostly PhD students in SCS, was that the field experience was extremely useful to their work.

PhD student Yong Xie thinks that watching the burn will help his research on smoke detection, while colleague Wanting Wang says, “It’s the first time my research became real to me. The process was very well-designed and we were well hosted by the refuge.”

Because the active fire was too small to see from the NASA Earth Observing System instruments, the students will not be able to look at satellite photos of it. However, they will be able to see the results of the burn from satellite images next year.

“When the vegetation grows back next spring, we will be able to see that the area where the burn took place is much greener,” says Qu. That’s because all the dead underbrush or matted-down organic material that hinders growth will be gone, biologist Stone explains.

“Think of the burned material as fertilizer for newer growth. The unburned areas will continue to accumulate dead materials, and will not change nearly as much as the burned areas,” says Smith.

“Satellites can detect the greenness of vegetation, or lack thereof. So when the burned areas grow back, there will be a distinct line between the old unburned vegetation that retains its brown color as opposed to the new growth – the burned area – which should be very lush and green when spring rolls around.”

Fighting Fire with Knowledge

The EastFIRE Lab focuses on providing timely, accurate, cost-effective and technically appropriate fire-related information to the broad and diverse fire communities of the Eastern United States.

Although wildfires east of the Mississippi are less frequent and less intense than those in the West, there is still a necessity to monitor fire-related indices. The team works with various fire organizations and departments throughout the East to provide and recommend techniques for this monitoring.

The team researches remote sensing of fires, smoke aerosols and air quality, climate change impacts on fire, and fire as an ecosystem function. Many of the PhD students use their research in the lab for their dissertations.

EastFIRE will host a conference at Mason next year on specific topics related to fire-related information in the East. The team also applied for funding for a three-year study with the Joint Fire Science Program, a partnership of six federal agencies, to continue working on remote sensing applications with Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

“National Wildlife Refuges in the Eastern United States frequently require the use of prescribed fire to maintain wildlife habitat, promote ecosystem health and reduce the likelihood of dangerous wildfires,” says Sommers.

“However, such issues as smoke, effects of fire on plant communities and burned area mapping are making the continued use of prescribed fire difficult. We need information to better support priority management needs.”

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