Living with fire

Time is relative when you’re a forest researcher. Students and faculty in the fire science program at Oregon State University are especially aware of this reality. Their research will transcend their own lifespans. Forests can also change quickly when fire is present, but the results of fire can be seen for years afterwards. That’s what fascinates Ph.D. candidate Chris Dunn.

On a warm week in September, Dunn and a team of researchers are hunkered down in a section of the southern Willamette National Forest that burned in fall 2009 during the Tumblebug Complex Fire. The crowns of the trees are still naked and charred below blue autumn skies, but Dunn and his team aren’t looking up. They are looking down: counting and cataloging the woody shrubs and green plants that have grown back since the fire.


A portion of the southern Willamette National Forest burned during the Tumblebug Complex Fire in 2009.

Dunn and his supervisor, John Bailey, associate professor of fire management in Oregon State’s College of Forestry, are building on years of fire and forest management research.

“We’re not studying the basic physics of fire,” Bailey explains. “We are doing work that has already been done in order to translate it into how it affects active landscapes to meet the needs of society.”

From there, Bailey says, they can answer questions about how fire can factor into the control and spread of invasive species, can influence growth, and will behave in what researchers call the wildland-urban interface.

Fire = Good

Instructors and researchers within the College of Forestry along with their colleagues who work with all aspects of fire agree that the winds of change are blowing.

For many years, fire has been viewed negatively, and therefore suppressed at the expense of millions of federal, state and private dollars and countless human lives.

Another important change to consider is the wildland-urban interface itself. As many of us tire of urban life and make homes on the edge of urban areas or deep inside forests themselves, we put ourselves at risk to be in the path of wildfire, which means homes are often evacuated during fire season, and sometimes lost.

“There will always be a need to suppress fire and fight fire somewhere,” Bailey says. “But we have to be very careful. No forest, no home is worth a single life, much less the lives of an entire crew.”

That’s why the idea of prescribed fire has become so popular lately. Small, predictable fires controlled by experienced researchers can burn underbrush, which could otherwise become fuel for larger, destructive and less controllable fires. And there are other benefits, including controlling the spread of unwanted weeds and grass as well as creating a hospitable forest habitat for other plants and animals.


Becky Miller works as part of Dunn’s research team in the Willamette Forest.

In Dunn’s section of the southern Willamette National Forest, he can already see the beds and trails of deer and elk returning to the area just five years after a devastating burn.

“Fire is going to play a part,” Dunn says, convinced. “We’ve been in this suppression era for so long, and we’re realizing we can’t sustain that with the expenses and capabilities we have.”

Oregon State makes advances

During the summer of 2013, the College of Forestry conducted its first prescribed burn to a section of the MacDonald Forest, part of the 11,000 acres of college-owned forest on the edge of Corvallis.

Bailey and a group of people he jokingly calls “pyromaniacs” were present for and excited about the project led by a masters student researching fire’s effects on false brome, an invasive grass species.

“I was out there digging the fire line,” says Becky Miller, an undergraduate student in Oregon State’s bioresource research program.

Miller’s main focus is sustainable ecosystems, but after taking one of Dunn’s classes, she became interested in fire. She has worked as part of Dunn’s research team for the past two summers.

Dunn says that the fire science program at Oregon State is young compared to others on the West coast.

“It doesn’t have the long history of some of the other schools,” he says, “But we have this huge history of forestry and ecology and engineering that can really lend a lot of knowledge and information to the world of fire as well. We have the benefit of all of those disciplines working together.”


Dunn works hard at his research as well as inspiring his students.

Miller agrees that while she may not find a job working specifically with fire upon her graduation, fire will certainly play a factor in the forests where she’ll go on study and work.

“Fire is a part of every forest and every ecosystem on this planet,” Miller says. “It’s a natural force just as wind and rain and everything else we experience. I will be encountering fire’s influence wherever I end up, and I need to know about it if I’m going to be a skillful ecologist.”

Seeing is believing

Hands-on opportunities abound for students willing to find them.

“We spend the whole year sitting in the classroom,” Miller says. “I can’t wait for field season each year to get out and do this.”

Dunn says he is happy to work with bright students who take advantage of the opportunity to see what they’re learning about in the classroom.

“It solidifies the information so much better,” he says. “I can tell somebody about what’s out here in the forest, but until they see it, it’s not going to matter to them as much. This is becoming a really important part of how our students move through our program.”

New landscape

Dunn and his students are able to view changes to the landscape since 2009 in the section of the Willamette National Forest they study.

The experience students gain from hands-on fieldwork through the fire science program in the College of Forestry will make them industry leaders in the years to come.

“We’re learning how to use fire as a tool and working to refine that understanding over time,” Bailey says.

Miller agrees, and says her field work in fire and forest ecology are, so far, some of the most valuable of her educational career. “I can’t wait for field season each year to get out and do this.”

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