RENO, Nev. – With wildland fires eating up the forests and rangelands of Nevada each summer, and fire season now upon us, University of Nevada, Reno scientists are examining how drought, climate change and land management will affect future fire activity and how fires can in turn influence plant, soil and hydrologic processes.

In 2016, a little over 265,000 acres statewide in Nevada burned from wildfires. In 2017, around 1.3 million acres burned, and in 2018 a little over a million acres burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. They reported, in 2019, 562 fires burned 82,282 acres in Nevada; with 318 human-caused fires burning 18,801 acres and 244 lightning fires burning 63,481 acres, according to the fire center headquartered in Boise, Idaho.

BLM firefighter ignites juniper and sagebrush with a terra torch in the Absaroka Hunter Management Area south of Meeteetse.

“Our college faculty have for years been at the forefront of teaching, research, and Extension regarding rangeland, woodland and forest fires,” said Bill Payne, dean of the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resource at the University. “In recent years we have added numerous new faculty with expertise in different aspects of fire ecology, and we seek to integrate research, teaching, and Extension with a view towards greater knowledge, better policy prescriptions and improved, adaptive management practices.

“For example, the Experiment Station, led by Chris Pritsos, is currently funding at least five research projects on fire at the amount of $330,000, and our faculty have been very successful at attracting more than $1.25 million in extra-mural funding to fund research and Extension related to fire ecology and preparedness. We have a great many partners towards this end, including federal and state agencies, other colleges within the University, other universities, federal, state and local fire-fighters and dozens of individual communities.”

One of the College’s longstanding outreach programs, Living With Fire, is a collaborative effort among federal, state, local firefighting agencies and resource management agencies and is managed by the University of Nevada, Reno Extension.

“There isn’t just one approach to protect wildlands and promote quicker recovery from fires, it’s definitely a multi-faceted approach,” Christina Restaino, director of the Living With Fire Program and an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources, said.

As a natural resource specialist in the College’s Extension unit, Restaino works with other entities across the state to provide education on how to prepare for and mitigate the detrimental effects of wildfire.

“It requires that we, at minimum, work together to achieve the three principles of the National Cohesive Strategy, which are: Fire Adapted Communities; Safe and Effective Response; and Resilient Landscapes,” she said.

In Nevada, land management agencies have signed onto a shared stewardship agreement and have adopted the Nevada Cohesive Strategy as a guidepost for fire management throughout the region.

“We can’t separate humans from the landscape, so we need to be working to build resilient landscapes to fire through treatments like the BLM and USFS are doing,” Restaino said. “We need to build capacity for firefighting response and proactive fuels treatments, and we need to have communities in the Wildland Urban Interface become adapted to fire through good defensible space, safe places for firefighters to fight fire and evacuation preparedness.”

Their annual fire program, Nevada Wildfire Awareness Month is May, this year during a time when everyone is trying to set health boundaries through social distancing and staying at home.

“Wildfires can and will still happen this year, even though people are all locked down at home,” Restaino said.

Erin Hanan

Erin Hanan is a fire ecologist and assistant professor in the College’s Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Science. Her research focuses on how climate change and management affect wildfire activity in the western U.S. and how shifting fire regimes affect ecosystem processes.

“As the frequency of these fire disasters increases, we need strategies for managing risk,” she said. “However, our success will depend upon why wildfire activity is increasing in the first place and what factors influence fire behavior at the scales where management is implemented.”

Hanan, who runs the Fire and Dryland Ecosystems Lab at the University and also conducts research as part of the College’s Experiment Station, has been modeling the extent to which climate change and fuel accumulation promote the spread of severe fires in western U.S. watersheds and which drivers dominate at the scale of actionable management.

“We are finding that the effects of climate change and fuels can vary at fine scales within watersheds, so potential management strategies need to be evaluated in the context of local environmental conditions,” she said.

There are several management activities that are designed to reduce the occurrence of catastrophic wildfires, such as controlled burns or forest thinning; and legislatures have appropriated a lot of funding to these activities.

“Fuel reduction activities can be very effective in areas with unnaturally high fuel loads, such as in low-elevation pine forests that have experienced extensive fire suppression,” Hanan said. “In the southwestern United States, for example, climate conditions are frequently conducive to fire and so fuel load is the main limiting factor.

“In other regions however, fire activity is mostly driven by climate conditions and fuel aridity. In these systems, fuels grow rapidly and therefore fuel reduction is not a feasible approach for reducing wildfire risk over large areas.

“In wet systems like the Pacific Northwest, fuel loads are naturally high and fire is infrequent because the forests are usually too humid to burn. In these environments, thinning is not likely to be beneficial because extreme fires in the region are more limited by moisture and flammability than they are by fuel load. In these areas, climate change is increasing aridity, which in turn increases the occurrence of catastrophic fires.”

Climate change and silviculture

Sarah Bisbing specializes in forest ecology, silviculture (the care and development of forests), forest stand dynamics, forest landscape genetics and global change ecology. She is a forest ecology assistant professor and researcher from the College’s Department Natural Resources & Environmental Science and also conducts research for the College’s Experiment Station.

Leading a team of scientists and forest managers, Bisbing is conducting a long-term, Sierra Nevada-wide study, the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Experiment, known as AMEX, to identify alternative forest management treatments that will improve conifer forest resistance and resilience to climate change. It is a multi-agency project that stretches the length of the Sierra Nevada with forest research plots in varying elevations.

It will compare treatments representing fundamentally different climate change impact scenarios and a suite of potential approaches forest managers may take to mitigate impacts on the ecological, economic and social services provided by forest ecosystems.

“This research will help inform what forest managers will do in the long run to increase carbon sequestration, combat drought mortality and make forests more resistant and resilient to catastrophic wildfires and insect damage,” Bisbing said. “Climate change is and will be increasing the severity of ecological disturbances in forests, which will not only have devastating impacts on forest ecosystems but also turn these carbon sinks to carbon sources, leading to increases in the release of carbon into the atmosphere. This study will guide forest managers as they build resilience and resistance to those disturbances and attempt to mitigate the impacts of climate change on forest ecosystems.”

Teaching the experts

Knowing how to care for Nevada’s land before and after it is affected by fire and other disturbances is a key to reducing wildland fire risk and repairing lands after a fire. Fire operations managers, such as those in the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada, work to change how fire behaves to protect Nevada’s rangelands. They look to science to help guide them.

A partnership in the spring of 2019 between the BLM and the University of Nevada, Reno created an educational endeavor called the Rangeland Ecology & Management Program.

“What’s better to teach Nevada land issues than the University of Nevada, Reno,” Paul Petersen, BLMs Nevada State Fire Management Officer, said. “It already has a large knowledge base of Great Basin and Nevada issues, climatology and range types. And it’s a great opportunity to partner with a land-grant university. We’re a land management agency.”

Professor Tamzen Stringham and rangeland ecologist Devon Snyder, both in the College’s Department of Agriculture, Veterinary & Rangeland Sciences who also conduct research as part of the Experiment Station, put the curriculum together for the program. They taught the program’s first course, Rangeland Resource Management, at the Bureau’s office in Carson City to wildland firefighters.

Great Basin Fire Exchange

To keep scientists and land managers connected, the Great Basin Fire Exchange, based at the University of Nevada, Reno, works to facilitate the flow of the latest science and science needs to the fire, fuels, and restoration science and management community.

“The main way we connect scientists and land managers is through our activities – field workshops, webinars, in-person trainings and online courses,” said Génie MontBlanc, manager of the Fire Exchange, and faculty in the College of Science. “And we receive consistent positive feedback about our monthly newsletter that has almost 900 researcher and manager subscribers. People also reach out to me directly to ask questions, and I connect them to experts who can help them answer their questions.

Land managers need the latest information and tools to address the most important issues in the Great Basin.

“We receive questions or stated needs from our region’s land managers/practitioners, then we develop products or activities that synthesize the science to answer the questions and meet the needs,” said MontBlanc, who has been with the Fire Exchange since it began in 2010 in the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Science. “These products and activities are often developed or led by research and management teams, then we advertise through our newsletter and partner agency channels to distribute the information and/or bring everyone together.”

“We have known for many years that fires in the Great Basin are becoming more frequent, larger, and more destructive, and that the direct, rehabilitation and additional miscellaneous costs are getting increasingly out of control,” Payne, dean of the College, said. “The ecological costs are also staggering whether reduced critical habitat, loss of biodiversity, increased invasive species, soil degradation, or altered hydrology. Many economic activities vital to rural communities, including ranching, mining, hunting, fishing and recreation, are also adversely affected.