Wildfires were once an important driver of ecosystem health in western U.S forests, but decades of fire suppression, natural and human-caused disturbances and environmental change have combined to create conditions that favor wildfires. This spring wildfires have already been burning in Utah. Fire and land managers in southern Utah warned in early May that winter and spring precipitation in the area had promoted the growth of grasses poised to fuel wildfires in the dry summer months. Fires that were once an ecological benefit now impact human health and safety, air quality and water quality.
The Utah Forest Institute at Utah State University is dedicated to improving outcomes for fire and forest health in Utah. Institute researchers, led by Wildland Resources Associate Professor Jim Lutz and Senior Technical Analyst Megan Nasto, examine fire severity, fuel loading and tree death in Utah, working in a complementary way with state and federal organizations.
Lutz explained that to date, much of the fire research in the United States has concentrated on forest types not abundant in Utah, and the Utah Forest Institute aims to fill some of these gaps. The initial project of Utah Forest Institute researchers is creating the Utah Fire Atlas, which will describe the severity and patterns of fires in all Utah forest types using Landsat satellite data. The goal is to quantify at least 95% of the area burned since 1984 at a grid-scale of 100 ft x 100 ft, building on data from the federal Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity program.
Using the fire atlas, researchers will characterize both wildfires and prescribed fires in Utah so the data can inform land management and policy decisions that will create greater resilience to wildfires and optimize post-fire conditions. The institute is concentrating on fires from 100 to 1000 acres – a size relevant to managers considering prescribed or “let burn” fires.
This summer the institute will have recent graduates, as well as graduate and undergraduate researchers on the ground verifying satellite-derived fire severity and analyzing data. The institute’s work is supported in part by funding provided by the Utah Legislature through the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station’s Public Lands Initiative.
The Utah Forest Institute’s fire atlas project was recently the subject of a KSL News story that can be viewed at https://ksltv.com/438350/usu-researchers-creating-state-fire-atlas-for-prevention-efforts/. To see the current Utah Fire Atlas and learn more about the Utah Forest Institute, visit UtahForestInstitute.org.
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