Cover Story and Editor’s Choice: Issue 108 Volume 2

The cover image for Journal of Ecology’s latest issue was taken by Philippe Cohen. This photo relates to research article: Fire history and plant community composition outweigh decadal multi‐factor global change as drivers of microbial composition in an annual grassland by Qin, Zhu, Chiariello, Field & Peay.

This article was also selected as the Editor’s Choice paper for our new issue!

Here authors Nona Chiariello and Chris Field provide further insight into their research and share the background story behind these fascinating prescribed burn photographs.


In the western United States, wildfire is increasing in size and severity across landscapes that are simultaneously experiencing environmental changes, including global changes in atmosphere and climate.  We designed the Jasper Ridge Global Change Experiment (JRGCE) to study such global change factors in the context of California grassland.  Fire was not included in the original design of the study, but a wildfire spread into the experiment after its sixth year and provided a unique opportunity to begin examining fire effects and then recovery.  Eight years after the wildfire, we incorporated fire experimentally by carrying out replicate burns in four of the eight experimental blocks.

Cover Image One of four replicate prescribed burns conducted in July 2011 as part of the long-term Jasper Ridge Global Change Experiment. This experiment is focused on the interactive effects of fire, climate change, and other global change factors on California grassland. Photo: Philippe Cohen.

Prescribed burns are a bigger undertaking than one might imagine.  For the JRGCE it took two years of planning by a team of ecosystem researchers, land managers, fire experts, and local and state agencies; a 138-page agreement, burn plan, and environmental checklist; and approvals from multiple entities.  We made an early decision, backed by the lead fire agency CALFIRE (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), to broaden the research and educational opportunities as much as we could.  Research add-ons included testing both a long-range, fire-detection device and a fire retardant.  Educational options were limited by the number of people who could safely observe onsite, so Stanford University Video agreed to live-stream video of the burns.  A second videographer agreed to film from another angle.  For still photographs we relied on observers, especially Philippe Cohen, who was executive director of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve and took the lead with CALFIRE in writing the burn plan. 

Fire personnel assemble at the JRGCE to review conditions, procedures and safety before starting the prescribed burns. Photo: Philippe Cohen.
The start of the fourth burn. The perimeter of each burn is outlined in blue. The third burn is on the right, and the second burn is in the background. Photo: Philippe Cohen.

As the burn date approached, we surveyed the area to ensure there were no ground-nesting birds and to find snakes that would need to be moved.  Burn perimeters were painted a bright blue.  Public outreach was extensive, including electronic signage on a local highway to reduce the likelihood of motorists making emergency calls about smoke.  All this, knowing that final approval would hinge on air quality criteria on the morning of the burn, and also on when the anticipated fog bank dissipated.

Early on the scheduled morning, the sky was clearer than expected, and the burn was moved up.  Fire engines, battalion cars, a bulldozer and more than a dozen fire fighters from CALFIRE and two fire departments arrived. The first burn began at 10:40 and the fourth burn ended by noon. The burns were precise, dramatic, safe, and observed by more than 300 simultaneous livestream viewers. 

In the years since, researchers have studied the far-reaching but far less visible effects that unfolded belowground.

Post-fire regrowth of a scorched, native perennial grass and germination of annuals in the JRGCE. Photo: Nona Chiariello.

Nona Chiariello Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, Stanford University, USA
Chris Field Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, USA


Read the full research article online:  Fire history and plant community composition outweigh decadal multi‐factor global change as drivers of microbial composition in an annual grassland by Qin, Zhu, Chiariello, Field & Peay.

Find out what else features in Volume 108, Issue 2 of Journal of Ecology here.

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