Every other Thursday, Joe Checketts sets out into forestland, armed with a pair of clippers and a cooler filled with small metal tins.
As he works, the only sounds are the crackle of pine needles beneath his feet and the snip of the clippers as he moves through the ponderosa pines, collecting shrub and tree samples, and measuring soil moisture.
Checketts, 34, is a natural resources student at Oregon State University-Cascades Campus, working a paid summer internship that has real-world implications for fighting forest fires that plague the region. The information Checketts and his colleagues gather will be used by local officials in the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management for fire management.
Ron Reuter, a natural resources professor at OSU-Cascades, oversees the project. “The BLM was trying to figure out a way to do a continuous, live fuel moisture-monitoring program,” Reuter said. “Typically they’ll use this data to put into fire prediction models.
“Is it a high fire potential or a moderate fire potential? And then (they’ll use it) also to predict fire movement.”
Reuter said in the past the BLM has tried to clip live fuel to determine how much moisture is in different areas around Central Oregon.
“However, as they go through the year, right about this time a fire starts on Black Butte, and they pull everybody off,” he said.
The OSU program allows for regular collection and sampling. The program is in its second year, and Reuter said the three-year agreement will likely be renewed.
‘There’s a big need for it’
Jason Loomis, a fire management specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, said the information gathered by the students has already helped with fires. In fact, the data are being used for the Black Butte II Fire currently burning.
In the spring, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management teams use the information to determine when to set prescribed fires. Once fire season starts, the data become even more useful.
“It also gives planners and fire behavior specialists an indication of the dryness and potential severity for upcoming fires,” Loomis said. “For a real fire event such as (the Black Butte II Fire) we’re on more from the standpoint of how much fire behavior we can expect given the current fuel moisture.”
Sara Wyland, 25, served as the project’s intern in 2008, and took samples from the sites between June and October of that year. She graduated this spring.
“It was really exciting to be a part of the first sampling of live fuels in Central Oregon, which is also kind of surprising because this is such a high fire-risk area,” Wyland said. “It’s been conducted in many other areas, and there’s a big need for it.”
Wyland is hopeful the information she helped gather will help protect Central Oregon.
“Fire scientists know how to use this data in correlation with a lot of other variables like soil moisture, and hopefully it can actually aid in knowing how fires will behave if one ignites in one of those areas,” she said.
Loomis said the project stemmed from 2007’s fire season, which he described as extreme early in the season.
“We were asking the question of what live fuel moistures we were working with, and we looked around and nobody had the answer,” Loomis said. “The program was too demanding for our resources to consistently collect data.”
So, using a grant through the U.S. Forest Service’s state and regional office, Loomis and Geoff Babb, a fire ecologist with the Central Oregon Fire Management Service, tapped OSU-Cascades for the job.
Collecting the data
Collecting the data is a fairly simple process. At each site, Checketts fills 15 tins with clippings from three types of plants. He tries to steer clear of the plants’ flowers, which can hold more moisture and skew the sample, and grabs samples from a variety of areas at the site. He also checks soil temperature and moisture levels in three locations near the plants’ drip line, and records the information on his clipboard.
Once he’s finished collecting samples, Checketts returns to OSU-Cascades’ lab, where he weighs each tin.
“That gives us the measure of wet weight,” he said.
Then he removes the lids and puts them in an oven for 24 hours. Once that’s complete, he weighs them again, to get the dry weight.
The difference in weights tells Checketts how much moisture is being held in the plants.
Checketts, originally from Park City, Utah, and currently living in Bend, takes samples from four sites: Tumalo Ridge, off Skyliners Road; the Colgate remote automated weather station, about five miles west of Sisters; Haystack Reservoir, about 10 miles northeast of Terrebonne; and in Redmond at a site two miles northeast of the airport. Each site corresponds to a remote automated weather station, so the data collected can be matched up with the weather in the areas.
At Tumalo Ridge on Thursday, Checketts clipped pieces from three shrubs: ceanothus, bitterbrush and manzanita. He also tested the soil, clearing three areas of pine needles and placing a machine with probes into the ground.
“A lot of these are starting to flower,” Checketts said as he searched for the best stems to clip from a Bitterbrush plant.
For Checketts, who spent nine years working in business before heading back to school at OSU-Cascades, the internship is a perfect match for what he wants to do. And he’ll get academic credit for the research and writing components.
“This is the kind of work I’ve wanted to do all along, and I got talked out of it,” he said. “I should have listened to myself and not others.”
By March 2010, Checketts expects to have finished his bachelor’s degree in natural resources.
Checketts has done several internships during his time at OSU-Cascades, including with the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council this summer. But most have been behind desks. He particularly enjoys this one because he can get out and do fieldwork.
“They’ll use this data for fire predictions, to determine the intensity and the rates of spread,” Checketts said. “It will help in firefighting.”
Loomis expects the program to continue, so that the data can remain current and helpful to the fire agencies.
“It’s really been a win-win situation not only for the fire community but for academia,” Loomis said.
And Reuter is glad his students are getting the opportunity to take on fieldwork like this.
“It’s a research project in a way. They have to do a literature review on fuel moisture on the impact of modeling fire prediction,” Reuter said. “They get a chance to actually write a document that is going to be read by multiple people and so it has to be professionally done. It gives them a taste of what research is and gives them the responsibility of writing what would essentially be a peer-reviewed article. Most students don’t get that until grad school.”