This Research Team Is On Fire

Hard at work maintaining a forest fire. Picture provided by: Dr. Verble

Wildfires are known for their destructive and reckless behavior on the South Plains. However, Robin Verble, Ph.D., in the Department of Natural Resource Management at Texas Tech, is working to harness the environmental benefits of wildfires while working to develop better control methods.

Learning About Wildfires

Wildfires have been known to do serious damage. They are started by a lot of unfortunate events usually starting along highways and grasslands. They can spread very quickly across vast grasslands. They have been known to get so big that people several miles ahead of the fire are even forced to evacuate their homes. According to the Texas Tech NRM department there are also thousands of important species living amongst the areas affected by wildfires. It is very important to make sure and know everything there is to know about how these wildfires  and how they affect the insect populations they come in contact with. Dr. Verble teaches many wildfire classes in the natural resource management department at Texas Tech. She really enjoys wildfire ecology, and she has taken it upon herself to spread her knowledge about this topic to every student interested. She offers several courses at the university such as “prescribed burning” and “Forest and Rangeland Insect Diversity”.

One of the main topics covered throughout these courses is about insect communities and how their colonies react to prescribed burning. This type of burning is where land is purposefully burned and controlled at the same time, so that it reduces risks of actual wildfires for the future. There are areas all over the world that Verble described as “high fuel loads”, which is an area that vegetation is considered highly flammable and it could potentially be a very dangerous area if it were to catch fire. If these “high fuel loads” are not controlled by prescribed burning then a giant wildfire can sweep through a forest or a prarie and wipe out everything in its way. When wildfires do hit a high fuel load it really does affect every single species in its way, and it totally destroys everything the insects depend on for food and shelter. Verble said “My classes are very hands on. So students really get the chance to learn through real experience instead of just classroom lectures.” So it’s a great way for students to really see our environment and get face to face with one of the biggest threats to mother nature itself.

The Research Team

Alongside the classes offered by Dr. Verble there is the research team. The team observes insects before and after the event of a wildfire, and students get the chance to be involved with this process if they are interested and ready to work hard. For instance, Britt Smith is an assistant graduate student now, and he conducts research over the dung beetle species. Britt explained “Examining whether the habitat changes after prescribed rangeland fires, and if it has an influence on dung beetle species that live in the Texas Rolling Plains.”  You see, there is three types of dung beetles: rollers, tunnelers, and dwellers. The names basically describe each type of beetle and how these insects use the dung they come in contact with. Dung beetles are found everywhere except for Antartica, and they live in places that range all the way from forests to the driest ofdeserts. Britt mentioned that “So far, early results suggest that we have not seen a difference in dung beetle species or abundances between rangelands treated with prescribed fire and those that were unburned.” With that said, they are going to continue the research on the species until they find out more.

Many students end up researching much longer than they planned in order to really get the results they are looking for. Also, Britt said “I have greatly enjoyed the study of fire ecology. Knowing that people have applied fire to this same landscape for thousands of years makes me feel connected to these past people. Also, seeing the response of wildlife to the matrix of burn and unburned rangelands brings up many new questions I would like to explore.” So with that being said, obviously this field of work keeps researchers interested and wanting to learn more at all times.

cimarron national grassland

Future Goals And Plans

In recent publications Verble said “I  plan to further explore plant combustibility in the future and learn more about how each plant burns compared to others.”  Further research within this topic may allow predictions of where fire danger or the P.O.I. (probability of ignition) are higher and how we can plants along the highways to reduce the chances of a fire catching.” Dr. Verble has also previously mentioned that one of her favorite things within her studies is watching students get really excited to research, and also being able to teach them how to use fire as a tool. Along with that she also emphasizes that students will graduate with a thorough understanding of fire itself, its history in the United States., and how it impacts an ecosystem from soil to animal and plant communities.

Wildfire’s can be devastating overall, so it is extremely important thatwe keep researching this subject. Verble and her research team plan to uncover even more important facts regarding wildfires in the near future so that we can better understand how the fires occur and find ways to prevent them.  We can be proactive in stopping them before they even occur if we really do work hard to discover new things in the next few years. In conclusion, Britt said, “Wildfires have a tremendous impact on a lot of ecosystems as well.  So the continuation of this research is crucial in the safety of the South Plains and all of the rangeland within it.”