An unexpected variable: Experimental Forest digs in to preserve historic buildings, data
With a wildfire burning roughly five miles from the outdoor research laboratory known as the Fraser Experimental Forest, Site Manager Banning Starr rushed to pack up 80 years of data and historical files Saturday morning.
Established in 1937, the experimental forest is one of just 13 such locations in the country, and the forest is home to some of the most extensive ecological datasets in the nation. The site is currently at risk from the Williams Fork Fire, which has burned over 10,000 acres and is only 3% contained.
“We started moving a lot of the historic files, for example, the papers for the establishment, which are so old they’re written on rice paper,” Starr said. “Those are invaluable to us.”
Starr had already helped to evacuate people camping and backpacking in the forest as well as ensure the safety of the four other people living at the experimental forest headquarters, including his wife and son.
Luckily, not too many people were staying at the living quarters of the experimental forest this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Starr said.
“The actual headquarters itself was closed, except for the people who live on site or who had quarantined before they started working for the summer,” he said. “So, we were really lucky in that regard that our dormitory wasn’t full and we didn’t have researchers all over the ground.”
He added that he was very grateful to all of the people who had reached out to offer to help moving important materials out of the forest or provide storage space.
After the paper files were moved to safety, Starr and fire crews got to work mitigating risk of fire damage to the experiments and historical buildings.
Some expensive and irreplaceable equipment involved in experiments was moved to storage, while other data recording equipment was left to continue collecting information. Starr said if the fire were to burn on experimental forest land, that equipment would be lost and have to be rebuilt.
“Some of those stations will continue to record and they’re going to be somewhat sacrificed, so we can keep collecting that data,” he said. “The idea would be that once the fire comes through and once the forest is given back to us, we’re going to go immediately back to those structures and rebuild them so we have as small of a data gap as possible.”
As for the buildings, fire crews dug ditches into the ground soil around the edges of each building so that the fire won’t have fuel and hopefully won’t reach the structure. Trees have been trimmed and pruned so that fuels aren’t as readily available.
All around the headquarters area, crews also laid hoses in trenches of ground soil that connect to a sprinkler system and nearby water sources. A few pumps send the water to 1,500 gallon collection pools which is then dispersed by the hoses and sprinklers to raise the relative humidity.
Kelly Elder, scientist in charge of the Fraser Experimental Forest, explained that raising the relative humidity in the area, especially wetting the vegetation and the ground, helps keep from fueling the fire.
“If we bring up the relative humidity and the moisture in the ground and the buildings enough, then the flames will move through here without igniting the structures,” Elder said. “It turns it into a little tropical island instead of the desert we had.”
The sprinkler system allows fire crews to turn it on and leave unattended for hours in case the area needs to be evacuated. Also in the works is a dozer line in between the forest and the fire, which runs from County Road 73 to Deadhorse Trail.
Elder, who has 25 years of experience in the experimental forest, noted that the mitigation work crews are doing right now will also help keep the area safe in the future from other wildfires.
In the past eight years, Elder can recall at least three wildfires that threatened the experimental forest. He said the hotter, drier and longer summers, along with drier winters, have brought more frequent and intense fires.
“We have to face the fact that climate change is part of the new West and we’re going to live with forest fires,” Elder said.
With the trend of extreme wildfires likely to continue, Elder and Starr emphasized the importance of fire research and noted the potential to study the effects of this blaze could lead to exciting research and finds.
“We don’t want fire to come into the experimental forest, but if it does then it might provide us or some scientists an opportunity to study the impacts of that,” Starr said.
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