Thursday, Sep. 23, 2010
A wind-driven inferno blasting through the boundaries of the Utah National Guard’s Camp Williams that burned three homes and badly damaged others isn’t exactly the scenario Jamin Johanson anticipated as he wraps up two years of research at the Traverse Ridge site.
But the blaze, about 30 miles south of downtown Salt Lake City, illustrates how quickly a disturbance — whether natural or manmade — can alter an ecological site, a significant topic in the Utah State University grad student’s study.
With Department of Wildland Resources faculty mentor Chris Call, Johanson, who completes a master’s degree in range ecology this fall, has prepared ecological site descriptions at the sprawling, 44-square-mile military training site and is developing a classification system for varied plant communities.
“We studied 12 different ecological sites ranging from loamy bottom land to varied sagebrush and shrub communities,” he says. “Our main objective is to develop process-based, state-and-transition models which can be applied to similar sites throughout the Great Basin, enabling scientists and land managers to observe how sites change in response to different conditions.”
Johanson, who recently joined the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Richfield, Utah, doesn’t know if any of his research plots were affected by the so-called ‘Machine Gun Fire,’ triggered Sept. 19 by artillery training.
Had the blaze occurred earlier in his graduate studies and engulfed any of his research plots, the incident might have caused a major headache for Johanson. But with the data safely collected, the fire affords an opportunity to test the researcher’s models. How will the more than 4,000 burned acres recover and transition to a new vegetative state?
Johanson, Call and their departmental colleague Mike Jenkins expect a resurgence of native Gambel oak, which sprouts thousands of new stems from underground, potato-like lignotubers. Fresh shoots should quickly fill the blackened earth and, once again, cover steep hillsides with dense shrubs.
Fires are a frequent occurrence at Camp Williams, an expected consequence of live-round weapons training. Even without firearms, the high desert landscape is susceptible to wildfire. To address the danger, the Utah National Guard enlisted help from Utah State to develop a fire management plan for the camp.
From 1992-97, Jenkins, a disturbance ecologist, worked with the camp’s environmental division to implement such measures as fire breaks, prescribed burns, planting of less flammable grasses and brush, along with control of weeds and invasive plants. Goats, still a fixture at the camp, were brought in to graze on fire-prone vegetation.
“We also set up a fire weather station and initiated the National Fire Protection Association’s fire rating system,” says the Wildland Resources associate professor.
Gambel oak, the area’s predominate vegetation, turns yellow and dry this time of year, he says. “After the first freeze, it’s particularly vulnerable to fire.”
Just a week before the fire, Call and one of his undergraduate classes took at field trip to Camp Williams and, from a high ridge, observed the site’s fire breaks, along with the growing residential community of Herriman just north of the camp.
“Fire precautions are in place but it’s hard to stop a wildfire in 50-plus mile-per-hour winds,” he says.
Along with the Camp Williams’ flora, WILD researchers have long studied the area’s fauna. Emeritus Professor Mike Wolfe’s study of Utah’s cougar populations, which includes cats inhabiting Camp Williams, is the longest continuously running comparative study of mountain lions in the world.
Wolfe’s doctoral student David Stoner has placed a GPS collar on a cougar at Camp Williams and wonders about her fate.
“She tends to summer in the high country, but the fire burned a large portion of her winter range,” says Stoner, who will fly over Camp Williams Sept. 25 and try to detect the animal’s location. “Luckily, her collar records eight positions a day, so we should be able to find out how she and her kittens responded to the fire.”
How the lion fared is of great interest, he says.
“We want to determine how fire affects range conditions for mule deer and how cougars then respond to changes in the distribution of their prey.”
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, firstname.lastname@example.org