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Research / Discovery

Researchers lead wildfire impact study to assess High Park Fire's effects and support community recovery

August 23, 2012

In response to one of the worst wildfires in Colorado history, scientists from the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University are leading a first of its kind, large-scale wildfire impact study on the High Park Fire in partnership with Colorado's newest research facility, the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

Running the imaging spectrometer during a test flight over Grand Mesa near Grand Junction, Colorado.Critical data

The study will provide critical data to the communities still grappling with how to respond to major water quality, erosion and ecosystem restoration issues in an area spanning more than 136 square miles.

“Wildfires are an increasingly important environmental issue in Colorado and across the country,” said Joyce Berry, dean of the Warner College of Natural Resources. “This research project will enable land managers, policy makers and scientists to study the High Park wildfire’s behavior and impact in unprecedented scope, and help create solutions for restoration and mitigation.”

A first

NEON's airborne observing instruments mounted in a protective frame in the belly of a Twin otter aircraft. The instrument suite includes an imaging spectrometer (one of three that the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been commissioned to build for NEON), LiDAR and high-res digital camera. Supported by a National Science Foundation RAPID grant, the project will integrate airborne remote sensing data collected by NEON’s Airborne Observation Platform (AOP) with ground-based data from a targeted field campaign conducted by CSU researchers. This is the first time a comprehensive airborne remote sensing system of this caliber will be used to enhance research on wildfire causes and impacts. The system will be able to detect remaining vegetation, identify plant species, ash cover, soil properties and other details to help illustrate how the fire burned – over the span of the entire fire scar.

“NEON’s airborne system will not only provide high definition 3D imagery, but will also collect rich ecological data over the entire fire area with exceptional detail - down to one yard,” said Tom Kampe, NEON assistant director for Remote LiDAR data captured by the AOP during Grand Junction test flights yielded this detailed view of the rough surface of Mount Garfield. Color corresponds to elevation. Image by Keith Krause.Sensing. “NEON’s technology will provide researchers with almost as much information as if we walked the entire landscape, and when paired with CSU’s ground-based data and assessment – the comprehensive findings will allow land managers to make much more informed decisions for restoration.”

Comprehensive assessment

The two-tiered research approach will allow a comprehensive assessment of the natural causes and impacts of the fire, and is expected to help the scientific and management communities understand how pre-existing conditions influenced the behavior and severity of the fire. It will also offer some understanding of how the fire’s patterns will affect ecosystem recovery, including vegetation, wildlife and water resources.

The first NEON High Park flight is scheduled for this week and will cover the entire High Park Fire scar and adjacent unburned areas including Lory State Park and the Hewlett Gulch fire. Data-rich aerial images and research findings will start to become available in fall of 2012.

From CSU Professor Bill Romme, this photo of the High Park burn area illustrates how fire severity varied greatly from place to place. CSU's research team

CSU’s research team for the project is comprised of 11 scientists across multiple disciplines and is led by project principal investigator Michael Lefsky, associate professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability. The research project is being conducted in collaboration with local, state and federal agencies and land managers to enable solution-oriented results that will best support restoration needs of the community.

“Findings from this research will support those working on recovery efforts in the region, such as the U.S. and State Forest Service and the Cities of Fort Collins and Greeley, both of whom have water supplies likely to be affected by post-fire erosion,” said Lefsky. “Our team will coordinate research efforts with stakeholders, share information and help set the stage for future collaborative initiatives that address the complex relationships between drought, fire and water supply.”

About the technology

The NEON AOPs will consist of instrumentation deployed on three Twin Otter aircraft. The aircraft-mounted instrumentation in the AOP includes an imaging spectrometer operating in the visible to shortwave IR spectral region, a waveform light detection and ranging (wLiDAR) instrument, a high-resolution digital camera and a dedicated Global Positioning System (GPS) and Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) subsystem. The powerful combination of biochemical and structural information provided by spectroscopy and waveform LiDAR can be used to observe many features of land use and to observe and quantify pest and pathogen outbreaks, responses to disturbances like wildfire, and spatial patterns of erosion and vegetation recovery.


About NEON

Boulder-based NEON will build 60 sites across the United States, utilizing cutting-edge technology that will gather and synthesize continental-scale data over 30 years on the impacts of climate change, land use change and invasive species on natural resources and biodiversity. Such information will enable users to understand and predict environmental change on regional and continental scales. As a continental research instrument, NEON will support a large and diverse group of organizations and individuals. All NEON data and information products will be made freely and openly available in near real-time to scientists, educators, students, decision makers and the public. NEON is funded by the National Science Foundation.