Berkeley Lab project aims to understand fire’s impact on ecosystem

Photo of burnt forests after a wildfire
Jasquelin Peña/Courtesy
Photo of woods devastated by wildfire shown. Researchers at UC Berkeley's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory intend to research the effects of wildfires on mountain ecosystems, with the help of volunteers.

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Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, are currently conducting research that aims to understand fire’s impact on mountain ecosystems.

The project is led by Berkeley Lab researchers Erica Siirila-Woodburn and Michelle Newcomer, in collaboration with Jasquelin Peña, associate professor at UC Davis and faculty scientist at Berkeley Lab, among others.

According to a Berkeley Lab press release, researchers are focusing on the Cosumnes River watershed, which stretches from the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the Central Valley and provides water for a wide range of California’s communities.

As one of the last rivers that flows through the Sierra Nevada without a major dam, the Cosumnes River makes for an ideal research site, the press release added. 

“Several years ago, Berkeley Lab researchers developed an integrated model for the Cosumnes River Basin,” said Susan Hubbard, associate director of the earth and environmental sciences at Berkeley Lab, in an email.

This model was originally used as a tool to simulate the influence of wildfires on water runoff and groundwater recharge, Hubbard added. Leading to some surprising hypothetical results, including that wildfires increased recharge.

Years later, the Caldor fire struck California. Samples of water, soil, and ash from the site of the Caldor fire are currently being collected, according to Peña.

This real data is now being populated into the model to quantify risks of flooding, erosion, and water quality degradation in the future, according to Hubbard.

“Living and working in California, fires have become a front and center issue,” Peña said.

She hopes this project will help in getting a better sense of how to manage water and fire resources.

Berkeley Lab is also partnering with the American River Conservancy to include volunteers from the community in the project.

Researchers write out protocols for the volunteers and decide where and what type of samples should be collected, according to Elena DeLacy, executive director of the American River Conservancy. 

The volunteers are called “storm chasers,” DeLacy added.

A day in the life of a storm chaser includes going to one or more sites and gathering an array of information, including photographs, GPS coordinates, weather, water temperature, pH and electroconductivity, DeLacy said. 

She added that including volunteers in these types of projects speaks to the larger impact that the research aims to have around building community and taking care of the planet.

Peña also noted the importance of collaborating with volunteers to bolster the research.

“(The volunteers) have a lot of local knowledge,” Peña said. “Having volunteers helps us expand our reach and allows us to sample the watershed much more broadly,” she added.

Contact Lydia Sidhom at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @SidhomLydia .