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UMaine Farmington Researcher Investigating Impact of Western Forest Fires

FARMINGTON, Maine - During a record year for wildfires in the western U.S., a researcher from the University of Maine at Farmington has received federal funding to investigate some of the impacts of high severity fires on western forests.

UMF Biology Professor Drew Barton and his collaborators plan to use the 18-month, $67,000 grant to examine how a change in fire fighting regimes is altering the forest.

Barton says before Southwestern areas were settled by Euro-Americans in the late 1800's, light ground fires caused by lightening thinned out vegetation every few years, making big, hot fires rare.

"The pine and oaks and other plants and animals were adapted - are adapted - to living in this kind of fire-prone environment," Barton says. "Maybe we could even say that fire was as important to these ecosystems as water or air or soil."

Barton says in the late 1800's large numbers of cattle and sheep introduced by settlers began grazing away the grasses that had allowed fires to spread from place to place, and people got good at putting out fires.

Those factors, he says, increased the amount of burnable fuel, and about 25 years ago the climate started becoming hotter and drier.

"And the combination of all of that dry fuel and these drier conditions led to these massive fires that you're hearing about now. These fires don't just thin the forest, but in places they burn most of the forest down to the ground."

Barton says his research is looking into whether pine and oak hit by big fires are able to recover. He say past research suggests that pines are hit hard by big fires and that the woodlands become less diverse, shrubbier and more like grasslands.

Barton says the main goal of the grants is to provide helpful information to forest managers. He's doing the research in a forested mountain range in southeastern Arizona.