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ALASKA FIRE MANAGEMENT: Investigating the link between fire and invasive plants
Alaska Region, August 2, 2011
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2010 photo of fireline constructed to protect cabin; a helispot and small camp were located in 
the meadow on the right side of the photo.
2010 photo of fireline constructed to protect cabin; a helispot and small camp were located in the meadow on the right side of the photo. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Logs cut and stacked by firefighters during suppression activities. Native fireweed has colonized this site in the year since the fire.
Logs cut and stacked by firefighters during suppression activities. Native fireweed has colonized this site in the year since the fire. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Wildlife Biologist Delia Vargas Kretsinger pulls up non-native lambsquarters found at a burned cabin site.
Wildlife Biologist Delia Vargas Kretsinger pulls up non-native lambsquarters found at a burned cabin site. - Photo Credit: USFWS

by Lisa Saperstein, Fire Ecologist

Wildland fire is important for maintaining natural and diverse habitats, but it has also been linked to the spread of non-native invasive plants as these species colonize disturbed areas. Recent burns create habitat for native plant colonizers, such as fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), mosses, and liverworts in Alaska, but they can also provide an opportunity for non-native noxious weeds to invade. Most invasions of non-native plants occur where the plants are already established on the landscape then expand into disturbed areas. This has been noted in interior Alaska where post-fire surveys detected invasive plants moving into burns from adjacent infestations on roads and other areas used by humans such as cabins and trails. Most of our refuges in Alaska are roadless and contain relatively few sites that can serve as seed sources for invasive species.

One potential source of invasive plant seeds, however, is through fire suppression activities. Seeds from infested areas of Alaska- or even from the Lower 48 states- may be able to hitchhike on the clothes and equipment of firefighters and become established in burned areas. A requirement to rinse out aerial water-tankers and helicopter buckets that come to Alaska from outside the state was implemented in 2011 to help prevent the potential spread of aquatic invasive plants into our environment. The threat level of seed introduction by smokejumpers and ground crews remains unknown, however.

In summer 2010, the Pat Creek Fire burned 72,692 acres on the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in interior Alaska. Numerous firefighters conducted suppression activities for an extended period to protect private land within the refuge. Crews were staged from sites with known infestations of invasive plants, such as the Dalton Highway and village airports and then transported to the fire. This fire provided a good opportunity to begin investigating the question of whether firefighting activities were likely to introduce invasive species into natural areas.

In July 2011, Regional Fire Ecologist Lisa Saperstein and Yukon Flats Wildlife Biologist Delia Vargas Kretsinger surveyed helispots, fire camps, and firelines within the Pat Creek burn for non-native invasive plants. Only one non-native plant was found: lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), which is considered to be very weakly invasive. The plant was located next to a burned cabin, reinforcing the association of non-native plants with areas of human use in Alaska. Because it may be difficult to detect some species early in their establishment, the suppression sites will be revisited for up to five years. If no additional invasives are found, they will be declared weed-free.
 


Contact Info: Kristen Gilbert, 907-786-3391, kristen_gilbert@fws.gov



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