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Earth Notes: Fire-fighting fungi

Pile burning is when crews ignite "slash piles," which includes branches, small trunks and debris from forest thinning projects.
Brady Smith
Coconino National Forest
Pile burning is when crews ignite "slash piles," which includes branches, small trunks and debris from forest thinning projects.

Forest managers are researching fungi as a surprising new tool to aid restoration projects that ease the risk of wildfire.

Fungi break organic material down into carbon compounds, and their hidden, rootlike structures, known as mycelia, release nutrients into the soil. That’s just what is needed to accelerate the decomposition of slash piles… the piles of logs and branches left behind after forest thinning projects.

Slash piles are typically removed by burning. But they burn very hot and leave behind sterile soil, where native vegetation struggles to take root.

The burning of slash piles destroys nearly all organic nitrogen, whereas mycelia can fortify nitrogen in forest soil.

Colorado forester Jeffrey Ravage says fungi can turn slash into rich organic soil in five years… when otherwise it might take fifty or more.

And that soil might later be used for agriculture.

Near Austin, Texas, volunteers inoculate slash piles with turkey tail fungi, which in three years can transform logs into a rich loam that can be used to fortify soils. In Colorado, researchers are reducing slash piles to wood chips, which are then seeded with fungi spores, which can then turn the wood into organic soil.

Given the vast scale of western forests, it will be a challenge to use fungi to reduce wildfire risk in a meaningful way. Ongoing research, however, provides real hope for this creative alternative to burning slash.

This Earth Note was written by Steven Schwartz and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Steve first came to Flagstaff in the late 1970s to study at Northern Arizona University, where he obtained a master’s degree in biology, and he feels fortunate to have been able to call Flagstaff home for over thirty years. Recently retired after a long career in healthcare administration, his retirement allows him to spend large amounts of time exploring the rich diversity of the Colorado Plateau. Steve considers himself a lifelong learner and he can often be found exploring with his two dogs, Quinn and Rosie, indulging his passions for biology and the natural world.
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