Researchers gain grant to study fire aftermath, regrowth

University professors look at changes in soil, landscape

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter

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As wildfires dominate headlines in the Pacific Northwest and the rest of the American West, a Washington State University Vancouver researcher is seeking answers to unknown questions about a fire’s aftermath.

Kevan Moffett, an assistant professor of environmental hydrology at the Salmon Creek campus, and Andr?s Holz, an assistant professor of geography at Portland State University, recently received about $500,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation grant to research how the soil and landscape changes after multiple wildfires in one area.

It’s a relatively untapped area of research, Moffett said. There’s no data on the hydrology — the movement and quality of water — of soil that’s been burned over and over again in the kinds of forests that cover Washington state, nor is there any information on how repeated burns could affect landslides, downstream flooding, vegetation regrowth or the risk of even more fire.

“It’s like a whole new world is opening to us,” Moffett said.

And it’s a world that, as climate change makes Pacific Northwest summers drier and hotter, could become more familiar.

“It is likely that we’re going to have more severe and more frequent, presumably, fire in the future in this area that has tons of fuel,” Holz said.

Moffett, Holz and their team will look at six 50-by-50 meter swaths of land in the Cougar Creek fire zone and study hydrology of the landscape and what vegetation returns to the area. It’s a unique spot, Moffett said, as wildfires burned through the Cougar Creek area on the south slope of Mt. Adams in 2004, 2008 and 2015.

“This is something observed worldwide at higher frequency than was known in the past and it’s anticipated as some areas become warmer and drier in upcoming years,” Moffett said of the several fires striking the area in a short period of time.

Using a device that marks the conductivity of the soil — in general, the more conductive the soil is, the more water there is — researchers will map the quantity and depth of water in each of the six locations. Researchers will look to see how repeated fires changed the soil, looking at how the destruction of organic matter and increased ash affects tree regrowth, as well as how re-burns affect landslides and soil drainage.

“If it takes a couple years and burns just when it becomes waist high, who is going to provide the seeds to generate that forest?” Moffett said. “You might have to have a difference pattern of regeneration where it becomes very hard for that patch of land to become reforested.”

Holz predicted the region could begin to look less like a lush green forest and more like a savannah as repeated wildfires occur — but that, and the answer to other mysteries, remains to be seen as the group dives into its three-year research project.

“The ultimate goal is to come up with a set of predictive variables which is what we can expect under a warmer climate,” he said.