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Forest fires a real concern for areas hit hard by hurricanes

Downed trees can be fuel for wildfires. A new study hopes to limit the chances of wildfires doing even more damage in areas ravaged by hurricanes.

Scientists from the Pacific Northwest will help forest managers in the Southeast quickly measure fuel loads across extensive areas of hurricane-damaged forests, the first step in deciding where to remove downed trees in order to prevent devastating wildfires from inflicting even more damage to hurricane ravaged areas in the Southeast.

Hurricanes toppled millions of trees across the southeastern United States in 2004 and 2005. Roger Ottmar, a research forester with the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station (PNW), will soon lead a team of fuels specialists in evaluating the amounts of dead trees and branches left on the forest floor.

The team will measure logs, stumps, and other forest fuels across a broad spectrum of pine and hardwood forests, and use the data to develop a photographic guide that forest managers can use to rapidly assess fire hazards in their jurisdiction and develop plans for reducing fuel loads.

“ The hurricane damage was devastating to both people and forests, and a big wildfire is the last thing they need at this point,” said Ottmar. “By recording the effects on damaged forests, we can assist the process of treating the most flammable fuels.”

Forest Service scientists will complete their data collection in the spring of 2007, then translate the data into the guide. These types of guides are already helping federal officials in other regions of the United States, and unprecedented Katrina impacts prompted the recent call to develop a new guide focused on wind-damaged Southern forests.

“ Hurricanes are a natural disturbance, and according to recent long-term weather forecasts, there will be even more of them in the near future,” said Ottmar. “Our work is targeted at the post-Katrina effort, but it will also provide the scientific data needed to manage the aftermath of the next big storm.”

The federal interagency Joint Fire Science Program, based in Boise, Idaho, is funding the project.

Sherri Richardson Dodge | EurekAlert!
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