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Jul 15, 2013 12:09 PM by Ryan Haarer

UA researchers study future forest landscape after Aspen fire

TUCSON - A group of students at the University of Arizona are examining the effects of the Aspen Fire.

That fire burned over 340 homes and businesses, and its destructive nature has these researchers wondering if the landscape will ever return to what it once was.

"Some of the high severity areas I am definitely noticing type changes, which is changes to a different ecosystem," said graduate assistant, Lauren Maghran.

The fire was so intense that in some areas seedlings of future forests burned.

"Fire creates a real mosaic on the landscape. Some areas can burn with very high intensity like this patch I am standing in now where all the over story trees have been killed. But in the background we can see areas where the forest actually survived. The trees may have a little scorch around the base but the over story trees are still intact," said Dr. Don Falk, a fire ecology expert at the university.

It's those patches, of varying fire severity that the students are comparing. Lauren and her team take measurements of both dead trees and trees that are still standing to get a better idea of what can survive the flames. They also measure these little seedlings to know what's growing back.

What they are finding is a big concern for the area. They're finding some tree species are different than before, and they're finding shrubs are taking over.

"So shrubs are coming in areas that are historically tree dominated. And that's pretty concerning because if the trees can't get established under the shrubs then we are worried about regeneration in the future," said Maghran.

Lauren says more fires being put out by man in the 20th century has allowed for overgrowth, fuel for a massive blaze.

"They could take low severity fire for hundreds of years but these high severity fires that have fuel build ups of fifty years are a new phenomenon," claims Maghran.

She believes reintroducing fire and planting more trees could help restore the landscape to what it once was.

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