Burning Issues in Fire Research


The summer of 2004 carries the dubious distinction of being the largest fire season in Alaska history, with 6.7 million acres burned. Extensive wildfires, especially near towns and villages, generated public concern about the impacts of fire to the boreal forest ecosystem. Monitoring the burned areas on national wildlife refuges is essential because it identifies the effects of fire on these ecosystems.

Koyukuk/Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge Complex has several historic and ongoing projects related to fire ecology. Permanent vegetation transects were established in 2001 in a portion of the Koyukuk Refuge that burned in 2000 to monitor post-fire plant regeneration. The burn is of particular interest because it occurred in part of the Galena Mountain caribou herd's winter range. Biologists Jenny Bryant and Karin Lehmkuhl are monitoring the regeneration of plants at the site, particularly changes in lichen cover because of its importance to caribou diet. Also, annual songbird surveys in the burn and an adjacent unburned area began in 2002. Furbearer and small mammal use of burned areas has been studied on the Koyukuk and Nowitna refuges for nearly 15 years. During the 2004 field season biologists returned to areas that burned in the mid-1980s and found that shrubs like dwarf birch, willow and black spruce were growing vigorously. Last summer's fires burned more than 250,000 acres on the Kaiyuh flats of the Northern Unit of the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge, and biologists are eager to see how the fire will affect the moose population there.

Fire monitoring data enables the Service to better manage fire on its refuges and answer questions raised by local residents and visitors. Our research also contributes to broader efforts in understanding the role of fire in Alaska 's boreal forest.

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