Franklin Countys First News

UMF professor studying western megafires

Aftermath of the Horseshoe Two megafire in the Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona.

Western megafires researched by UMF professor to help predict future outbreaks

FARMINGTON - Tens of thousands of fires have burned more than 8 million acres in the western U.S. this summer and the fires are still burning. Just in the last week, fast-moving wildfires have swept across parts of northern California, destroying buildings and killing people.

According to Drew Barton, University of Maine at Farmington professor of biology, wildfires are a natural part of the landscape in many parts of the U.S., but climate change and years of fire suppression have greatly escalated their frequency, size and intensity.

Barton and his collaborator, Helen Poulos of Wesleyan University, have received a continuing grant of nearly $30,000 from the National Park Service and the Western National Parks Association to examine 30 years of changes in the forests in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains and how these fires are changing the nature of the forests.

In spite of the abundant rain and snow the Western U.S. received last winter, this summer’s record-breaking heat left many areas in the West tinder-dry and vulnerable to wildfires.

“In some parts of the West, seasonal surface fires historically burned frequently but at low intensity,” said Barton. “Today’s warmer and drier conditions, in addition to a build-up of fuel that can burn, leads to bigger, hotter fires that burn into the crown of the forest, killing many trees and changing the nature of the forest. In other parts of the West, large crown fires were the norm in the distant past, but climate change has ramped up the heat and the size and intensity of wildfires.”

Barton and Poulos’ research is examining these megafires and providing land managers with critical information. First, they’re looking at how these fires are changing the nature of the forest—large pine forested areas are being lost and replaced by scrubby oaks.

In addition, they are developing a model and map of the remaining live trees and dead wood in the Chiricahua National Monument so land managers can predict where the next fire is likely to occur and how large, intense and dangerous it is likely to be.

“These massive fires affect us all, more and more, with the loss of life, homes, air quality and an important natural ecosystem,” said Barton. “We hope to improve our understanding of when and where these wildfires will occur, which will inform policy for sustainable forest management.”

A long-time faculty member at UMF, Barton teaches biology with an emphasis on forest ecology, conservation and environmental science. He has worked on fire ecology for many years, including in the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona and on the dynamics of Jack Pine on Great Wass Island and Pitch Pine on Phippsburg peninsula, both in Maine.

His scholarly interests include the study of the ecology of forest communities, the dynamics of these communities and the role of both natural disturbance and human-caused disturbance. His research often involves Farmington students, who work as research assistants and collaborators.

His 2012 work “The Changing Nature of the Maine Woods,” in collaboration with Alan S. White and Charles V. Cogbill, was awarded the John N. Cole Award for Maine-themed nonfiction.

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  1. Friends in Santa Rosa, Calif. have lost their home to these wildfires. As stated in this Bulldog article, "In spite of the abundant rain and snow the Western U.S. received last winter, this summer’s record-breaking heat left many areas in the West tinder-dry and vulnerable to wildfires."

    Many people don't realize that it (usually) doesn't rain in CA from June to Nov.
    After 5 years of severe drought, "California saw intense rainfall last year and then a cool, wet winter. The increased precipitation led to more growth in combustible grasses, shrubs, and trees." And San Francisco had a record high temp. of 106 F on Sept. 1.