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Goal: Sustain Our Nation’s Forests and Grasslands Wildfire during a drought? It can still benefit forests

During the hot, dry summer of 2011, lightning ignited a wildfire in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. Given the drought, managers were concerned that the fire would kill many large trees. However, our study found that saplings were susceptible to the fire, but nearly all the large trees survived.

Fire burning through fuels during a wildfire on the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas in 2011. USDA Forest Service photo by Virginia McDaniel.

The summer of 2011 was hot and dry—the entire Southeast was experiencing severe drought. When lightning struck a ridge on the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas, the High Peak Wildfire began. The terrain on High Peak was impassible and temperatures reached 100 degrees F daily.

In the interest of firefighter safety and hoping for ecological benefits, the district fire management officer on the Ouachita National Forest decided against fully suppressing the High Peak Wildfire. After rains extinguished the wildfire, a research team installed 32 plots across the 1,800-acre containment area. Researchers measured the plots 1, 2, and 5 years after the burn. Nearly all of the large overstory trees survived the combined effects of fire and drought.

However, many smaller trees in the midstory died in the fire—which was good news. Thinning the midstory is a common forest management goal and is often accomplished with prescribed burns. Reoccurring burns help restore the historic, open structure of the forest, which once included many more woodlands, savannas, and grasslands. Today, the forest includes more areas of deeply shaded, closed-canopy forests. Wildfire, under the right conditions, may help restore these open forest communities more efficiently than prescribed fire alone.

Principal Investigators
Virginia McDaniel, Forestry Technician
Tara L. Keyser, Project Leader
RWU
4159 - Southern Pine Ecology and Management
Strategic Program Area
Wildland Fire and Fuels
Publications
Managed wildfire, drought, and overstory survival: a case study in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas
CompassLive Article
Wildfire During a Drought? It Can Still Benefit Forests
Research Partners
Caddo-Womble Ranger District, Ouachita National Forest, Southern Region
James Guldin - SRS (Retired)
External Partners
Gabriel De Jong - The Nature Conservancy of Arkansas