LANSING — A Michigan State University researcher received a $454,000 grant to help researchers learn about forest resilience and recovery from wildfires.
The grant comes from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The research team will investigate wildfires in California from the last 17 years.
Fire ecologist and assistant professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at MSU Jessica Miesel will be the head of the research team. She holds a joint appointment in the Department of Forestry.
She is interested in coniferous forests that rely on fire because they play a pivotal role in these ecosystems. Fires help cycle nutrients, prepare the soil for new vegetation and rejuvenate wildlife habitat.
The research will help the team get a better understanding of how different ecosystems respond to high and low intensity fires.
Although the research is coming from sites in California, Miesel said the data will remain applicable to Michigan forests.
“In Michigan, the Jack Pine forest ecosystems are adaptive to high intensity fire, but Red Pine forest ecosystems are adaptive to low intensity fire,‘ Miesel said.
A high intensity fire in the Manistee National Forest would cause much more harm to the ecosystem than it would in the Jack Pine forest in Roscommon County.
“Jack Pine has seeds that are stored in serotinous cones,‘ Miesel said. “Those are cones where the scales are sealed with waxes and those stay sealed until the fire has passed through. Then those scales open up and the seed falls down to the ground and you have the next generation of the jack pine forest.‘
A high intensity fire in the Red Pines of the Manistee National Forest could result in irreplaceable harm.
“Red Pine trees have thick bark, which protects the mature trees from fire,‘ she said. “So, they are better suited for low intensity fire that have small flames and relatively low heat.‘
DNR Wildland Fire Prevention Specialist Paul Rogers said pines are a fire dependent ecosystem, but forests are seeing an early drought season this year.
“Our major concern are the pines,‘ Rogers said. “What’s happening now is the soils are so dry, that fires are burning down into the soil layers and it’s not just a surface fire.‘
Miesel said fires are common in dry, northern forests of Michigan.
According to the Michigan DNR, the Fire Management Department responded to 318 wildfires in 2019, which burned 1,015 acres of forest. This year they have responded to 159 fires.
The majority of 2019 fires were ignited on weekends and were caused by people. The most common cause, consistent with previous years, was debris-burning. Debris-burning fires can start from leaf and brush burning or fires that escaped burn barrels.
Thirty-one percent of fires in 2019 were from debris-burning.
The grant will help the team determine the post-fire outcome of the ecosystems.
“The idea is to use these study sites to see how various forest conditions affected fire intensity and tree survival,‘ Miesel said. “Understanding how we can shift to management strategies geared toward better resilience is critical to long-term health and viability of these forests.‘