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UNM biology dept works to prevent wildfires

While California begins to repair the devastation wrought by its extreme wildfires, fire scientists are researching ways to prevent such destruction to human life and property in the future.

The University of New Mexico’s biology department conducted a study designed to help California learn new fire management techniques. Matthew Hurteau, an associate professor for the biology department and coauthor for the study, said regular, smaller, controlled forest fires are key in preventing fires of the magnitude seen in California in recent months.

“One of the things that has been a focus of a considerable amount of past research — and since then, implementation by forest management agencies — is this idea that we need to restore regular surface fire to these forests as a way to reduce the risk of these big hot wildfires,” Hurteau said.

The study, “Prioritizing forest fuels treatments based on the probability of high-severity fire restores adaptive capacity in Sierran forests,” was published in the journal Global Change Biology this month. It focused on the Dinkey Creek watershed in the Sierra Nevada. Hurteau and his team ran simulations to determine how to prioritize the use of mechanical thinning.

Mechanical thinning is a method of removing underbrush and other fire fuel, by hand or with machinery. While an effective technique in preventing large wildfires, mechanical thinning carries a hefty price tag, Hurteau said.

“In a lot of forests, it’s quite expensive to do that, and so there’s been relatively limited implementation of these mechanical thinning treatments,” he said.

The researchers developed different scenarios to simulate varied levels of mechanical thinning and the effects they would have on fire risk. In the first scenario, they mechanically thinned an entire area that was operationally available; meaning, the area was set aside for researchers. In the second scenario, they thinned an operationally available area using optimized mechanical thinning — a method that focused thinning to only areas of high fire risk.

The study found that by treating higher risk areas with mechanical thinning first, 60 percent less forest required thinning by this method. Once high risk areas were thinned by hand, the rest of the forest could be thinned by prescribed burns.

“That tells us that if we put some forethought into where we place these mechanical treatments, we can achieve a considerable amount of that desired future condition of lowering high severity wildfire risk,” Hurteau said.

According to Hurteau, many of the major fires in the western part of the United States become worse because of poor management in the past.

“A lot of the lower elevation forest in the western U.S. historically burned very frequently, and the reason we’re having the problems we face now is because we’ve put fires out for a very long time,” Hurteau said.

Hurteau explained that firefighters allow natural fires to burn and thin out forests, while managing them so they don’t get out of control.

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“When a lightning strike sparks a fire, under conditions conducive to extreme wildfire, allowing those to burn are ways we have at our disposal to actually restore this important process that maintains these forests,” Hurteau said.

UNM’s biology department is also conducting experiments in the Jemez Mountains in the burn scar of the 2011 Las Conchas fire. Hurteau’s laboratory is working to find ways to re-establish tree cover after large fires. He said he also wants people to recognize the importance of prescribed burns.

“Fire is a very natural part of these systems, and one of the consequences of that is learning how to deal with the smoke that comes from these, both prescribed and managed fires,” Hurteau said. “The regular smaller doses of smoke are preferable to the big emissions we get from a big hot fire.”

Tom Hanlon is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @TomHanlonNM.

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