Life After the Burn

Appalachian Fire Ecology

By Niko Hajimihalis

Strong winds, fuel and a particularly dry season can produce flames from uncontrolled wildfires that consume acres of forest in minutes. In 2016, the combination of these factors spurred unprecedented wildfires that raged across tens of thousands of forested acres in the southern Appalachian region. These fires seared across five states leaving forests and towns burned to the ground.

Once the students arrive at the plots, they monitor soil changes and vegetation in the designated areas. They also document patterns in soil erosion, overstory mortality and ecological succession within the plots. “We want to see what a wildfire kills and what is growing back. Are you having the same species return or different species? Looking at these factors you can predict what the forest is going to look like in the future,” Hannah Bailey, a senior forest resource management major, said.One of the most important aspects of this Creative Inquiry project has been the focus on the long-term effects of wildfires on trees. “Last year we identified every tree in the plot. Students noted the species and dimensions of the trees and then transcribed a long list of variables regarding the tree’s health,” Hagan said. Students return to these trees at regular intervals and record any health changes.

Students surveying transects after wildfires.

The team’s research is receiving national attention. They had the opportunity to present their findings at the 2019 Society of American Foresters Annual Meeting in Portland, Oregon. Their research was well received and had the distinction of being only one of two undergraduate research projects to present. The presentation by the Creative Inquiry undergraduates was praised as being graduate level research.

Each trip to collect data produces new findings. They continue to see tree mortality. Some trees that were alive after the fire have since died. Vegetation that is not common in the area is beginning to grow inside of burn site plots. Hagan hopes that this project will continue for several more years in order to properly document the long-term impacts that wildfires have on forest ecology.