Restoration by Drone: DRI and Partners Test New Method for Reseeding Native Forests after Wildfire

Restoration by Drone: DRI and Partners Test New Method for Reseeding Native Forests after Wildfire

Restoration by Drone

DRI and partners test new method for reseeding native forests after wildfire

MAY 3, 2021
RENO, NEV.

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Forest Restoration
Technology
Wildfire

Featured research by DRI’s Dave Page, Jesse Juchtzer, and Patrick Melarkey.

As Western wildfires grow larger and more severe, the need for efficient and effective forest restoration techniques is growing as well. In April, scientists from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) partnered with the Sugar Pine Foundation, Flying Forests, and the Carson Ranger District of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest to test a new method for reseeding burned slopes by drone.

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas.

Patrick Melarkey of the Desert Research Institute flies the drone during a reseeding flight at the Loyalton Fire burn area on April 22, 2021.

Credit: DRI.

Drones are being tested for use in reseeding projects in other parts of the world, including California and the Pacific Northwest, but this project marks the first time this technology has been tested in the Eastern Sierra. For a trial area, the group selected a 25-acre site in a portion of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest that burned in the Loyalton Fire of August, 2020.

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas.

A hillside burned by the Loyalton Fire during August 2020. On April 22, 2021, the Desert Research Institute, Flying Forests, the Sugar Pine Foundation, and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest conducted a reseeding project at this site using new drone technology. 

Credit: DRI.

Prior to the drone reseeding event, DRI archaeologist Dave Page, M.A., conducted aerial mapping at the burn site. This detailed imagery was used to determine an appropriate flight path for dispersing seeds evenly across the burn area, and was programmed into software that guided the drone during the reseeding mission.

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas.

A drone carrying small seed balls of Jeffrey pine takes flight during a reseeding project at the Loyalton Fire burn area on April 22, 2021. 

Credit: DRI.

On April 22nd and 23rd, 2021, DRI scientists Patrick Melarkey and Jesse Juchtzer provided technical expertise as drone pilots for the reseeding portion of the project. Over the course of two days of flying, Melarkey and Juchtzer dropped 25,000 Jeffrey pine seedballs across the 25-acre burn area. The drone made a total of 35 flights, carrying approximately 700-750 seedballs per flight.

Above: Patrick Melarkey and Jesse Juchtzer from DRI fly a drone carrying small seed balls of Jeffrey pine during a reseeding project at the Loyalton Fire burn area on April 22, 2021.

Credit: DRI.

The seed balls were provided by the Sugar Pine Foundation, which worked with local community volunteers to collect more than 30 pounds of Jeffrey pine seed during the past year. The seed was combined with soil and nutrients into small balls that could be carried and distributed by the drone.

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas.
Small seedballs containing seeds of Jeffrey pine were prepared by the Sugar Pine Foundation in preparation for reseeding the Loyalton Fire burn area by drone. Each seedball contains approximately 3 seeds of Jeffrey pine. April 22, 2021.

Credit: DRI.

The technology used on this project to plant with drones was invented by Dr. Lauren Fletcher of Flying Forests. Fletcher is a 5th generation Nevadan and graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, Stanford, and Oxford.    

Above, left: Personnel from Flying Forests load seedballs of Jeffrey pine into a drone prior to a reseeding flight at the Loyalton Fire burn area on April 22, 2021. Above, right: Lauren Fletcher of Flying Forests invented the seed-spreading technology that was used during the drone reseeding project.

Credit: DRI.

Replanting native trees in burned areas can help stabilize slopes, reduce erosion, discourage growth of non-native plant species, and speed up the recovery of critical habitat for wildlife. Reforestation of burned areas is often done by planting small tree seedlings – but in areas far from roads or areas with especially steep terrain, this method can be expensive, labor-intensive, and dangerous. Spreading seeds by drone may provide a safer, cheaper, and easier alternative.

Next, the group will monitor and study the area to observe the success rate of this method of restoration. 
Yuan Luo near a lysimeter tank at DRI's SEPHAS Lysimeter facility in boulder city, nevada

Looking west from a hillside burned by the Loyalton Fire during August 2020. On April 22, 2021, the Desert Research Institute, Flying Forests, the Sugar Pine Foundation, and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest conducted a reseeding project on the burn area using new drone technology. 

Credit: DRI

Additional photos: 

For more photos of the drone replanting project, please visit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/driscience/albums/72157719000696158/with/51133563971/

Links to Media Coverage:

Restoring area forests one flight at a time, KOLO8 – https://www.kolotv.com/2021/04/23/restoring-area-forests-one-flight-at-a-time/

Drone scatters pine seeds to reforest hillside burned in Loyalton Fire, News4 – https://mynews4.com/news/local/drone-scatters-pine-seeds-to-reforest-hillside-burned-in-loyalton-fire

Pilot drone program helps reseed wildfire-ravaged areas in Tahoe, Sierra Nevada; Reno Gazette-Journal –https://www.rgj.com/story/news/2021/04/26/pilot-drone-program-reseeds-wildfire-ravaged-areas-tahoe-sierra-nevada/7384862002/

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About Desert Research Institute

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied interdisciplinary research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge, supported Nevada’s diversifying economy, provided science-based educational opportunities, and informed policy makers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Into the Plume: Advancing Fire Science Using Drone Technology

Into the Plume: Advancing Fire Science Using Drone Technology

Photo: Drone pilots look toward their aircraft flying through the smoke. Credit: DRI’s Dave Vuono.

Fire science research using drone technology at DRI

“It was sort of like a deep-sea exploration, with a submarine scanning the ocean floor,” said DRI research technician Jesse Juchtzer. “We’d never flown into a smoke plume above a fire like this, no one has. We really didn’t know what we’d find.”

Juchtzer and a team of DRI researchers, along with nearly 35 other scientists, embarked on a unique kind of camping trip this June. The group spent several days and nights in a remote area of central Utah’s Fishlake National Forest to do something that’s never been done before: to light 2000 acres of forest on fire and conduct the biggest prescribed fire experiment yet attempted.

 

 

Led by the U.S. Forest Service, the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE) has been years in the making. Tim Brown, Ph.D., Research Professor of Climatology at DRI and Director of the Western Region Climate Center, began collaborating on the project with colleagues at the USFS Pacific Northwest Research Station in 2013, with the idea of giving scientists the unprecedented opportunity to collect a range of data before, during, and after a large wildland fire.

Today, the project has evolved to bring together researchers from several universities and government agencies, including NASA and the EPA, in order to study fire from as many angles as possible, like the characteristics of the burning fuels, the chemistry of the smoke plume, fire behavior, and more. Roger Ottmar, Ph.D., Research Forester with the U.S. Forest Service and FASMEE lead, says the diversity of expertise is essential to the project’s goals.

“This is multi-agency and multi-organizational because we’re trying to collect not just smoke or soil but an entire suite of data that can be used to both evaluate and advance the fire and smoke models we use now,” Ottmar explained.

Fire managers rely on models to make critical on-the-ground decisions, like who to evacuate and when, where to allocate resources on the fire line, and when to issue air quality warnings, to name just a few. However, fires are changing, and the tools designed understand them aren’t keeping up.

“As fires get bigger and more destructive, we’re finding that the tools scientists and resource managers use to understand fires and predict their behavior are becoming inadequate,” explained Adam Watts, Ph.D., Associate Research Professor and director of DRI’s Airborne Systems Testing and Environmental Research (ASTER) Lab. “We need to develop the next generation of tools to help us understand modern wildfires, and that’s what this project aims to achieve.”

 

Adam Watts and a drone at DRI in Reno.

Adam Watts, PhD, outfits a drone in the ASTER laboratory with a custom air sampling canister. Credit Cathleen Allison/Nevada Momentum.

 

The DRI team, which included Watts and Juchtzer along with Dave Vuono, Patrick Melarkey, and David Page, deployed unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or drones) outfitted with scientific instruments over the fire as it burned. This is precisely the specialty of the ASTER lab: developing and refining scientific equipment, installing it on DRI’s UAS fleet, and deploying them in challenging environments like wildland fires.

For this FASMEE burn, the DRI team’s particular focus, among the many research areas explored in the project, was to better understand the chemical and biological components of smoke. To study these elements, DRI collaborated with the EPA and the University of Idaho to fly custom air quality sensors and samplers above and inside the smoke plume.

This research burn allowed the team to not only collect valuable data but also run critical tests of their equipment. The task of getting the UAS loaded with scientific instruments off the ground and into the hot column of smoke was a daunting technical challenge. When asked how this UAS flight compared to others he’s piloted in the past, DRI field technician Patrick Melarkey just laughed.

“It was like night and day,” he said. “During the flight, they’d say, okay, see that dark, black part [of the smoke plume]? Fly into that.”

Now that the burn is over, researchers have returned to the lab to analyze samples and make the necessary updates to their equipment. Though this project was the first of its kind, Watts says it’s definitely not the last.

“In the future, I expect that we’ll incorporate even more sophisticated science teams and work to develop more innovative equipment to collect data,” he explained. “This work is essential if we’re going to create the next generation of tools to help us cope with modern, extreme fires.”

The team will be heading back to central Utah later this year for the next FASMEE research burn. Stay tuned for updates about the project this fall!

 

DRI team at FASMEE research burn in Idaho

The DRI-led team at the June burn included (from left) Dave Vuono, Johanna Aurell of the UNiversity of Dayton Research Institute, Adam Watts, Dave Page, Brian Gullet of the Environmental Protection Agency, Leda Kobziar of the University of Idaho, Patrick Melarkey, and Jesse Juchtzer. Credit: Dave Vuono/DRI.