Firing away on forest fires

Nov 032003
Authors: IKarthika Muthukumaraswamy

A picture that dominates the back wall of Bill Romme’s office

captures a Yellowstone National Park wildfire in action.

The flames in the focal point of the photograph, however, only

begin to hint at the nuances of this necessary ecological


While firefighters desperately try to battle the raging

wildfires in California, scientists like Romme continue to study

the root of the phenomenon.

Romme, an associate professor at the Department of Forest,

Rangeland and Watershed Stewardship at CSU, has investigated in

detail the effects of the Yellowstone forest fires in 1988.

He is currently engaged in a project with the Nature Conservancy

of Montana in studying how efforts to prevent naturally occurring

forest fires in Yellowstone have changed its ecology.

“I think (fires) are just necessary. They are not really evil in

the natural forest,” Romme said. “They just kill old trees and

stimulate the growth of a new generation. From the forests’ view

point, fires are neutral.”

He said forest fires can have differential effects on wildlife.

The pine marten, a kind of weasel that dwells in wooded areas, lost

its habitat to the Yellowstone fires.

On the other hand the bluebird, which prefers open forests,

gained a habitat as a result of the fires.

Romme said that fires are not all the same everywhere.

Northern Coniferous Forests, such as those in Yellowstone, are

characterized by “stand-replacing” fires, which kill only

above-ground vegetation, allowing it to re-sprout from


“Even if you thin (the forest), you will still see big fires,”

said Romme, who opposes the “Healthy Forest Initiative,” which

calls for increased logging on public lands and national


Romme said that while such an initiative would bring fires under

control in the Ponderosa Pine Forest and similar woodlands, it

would not be applicable to higher elevation growth like in


“The fires in California are a catastrophe, not because of the

plants,” Romme said. “They are a catastrophe because of the homes

that have been lost and the people killed. This underscores the

danger of building your home in the middle of a forest.”

Studying the ecological occurrence of forest fires can be a

stimulating experience for students in the field.

Jonas Feinstein, a senior majoring in forestry who is currently

studying a fringe population of trees at Pingree Park, said working

in forest ecology gives him a good balance of field and laboratory


“It is an integral part of what you do in science – to collect

your data and analyze data,” he said. “I have been up (at Pingree

Park), related to the study about 20 times for a total of 25 to 30

days of actual study.”

Kathi Delehoy, assistant vice president for Research and

Information Technology, said Romme is one of the early

investigators in the forest fire field.

“He was one of the (first) researchers to start studying fire

and fire behavior,” she said.

She also said CSU has always supported conservation of a

sustainable environment, which is evident from its membership of

the Talloires Declaration, a commitment to environmental

sustainability in higher education.

“CSU (also) has among the finest programs in the world with

respect to natural resources,” Delehoy said.





 Posted by at 5:00 pm

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.