The Waterfall Fire after five years: An evaluation of postfire sagebrush and forest communities in the Great Basin1

Posted/Revised 10.01.09 by M Sady

John A. Arnone III

Desert Research Institute

2215 Raggio Parkway, Reno, NV 89512


Ann Bollinger
Carson City Parks and Recreation Dept, Open Space Division
3303 Butti Way, Bldg #9
Carson City, NV 89701


Alice A. Sady


Mike Sady*

Western Nevada College

2201 W. College Parkway, Carson City, NV 89703


* To whom correspondence should be sent

1Supported by a  NSF-EPSCoR Climate Change Grant Summer 2009 Fellowship award to M Sady.


Original Proposal of Study:


The climate of the Great Basin has changed during the past 100 years, observed by region-wide warming of 0.3 to 0.6 oC (WRCC, 2009), decline in snowpack (Mote and others 2005), and earlier arrival of spring (Cayan and others 2001) affecting streamflow (Baldwin and others 2003, Stewart and others 2004) and native and invasive species’ (e.g. cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum) plant phenology (McKenzie and others 2004). All of these factors may directly or indirectly increase the risk of the occurrence of wildfire, and likely have facilitated wildfire intensity and spread across shrub and forested landscapes. Once wildfires have occurred, landscapes undergo both natural post-fire plant succession or managed post-fire plant succession. Natural succession involves the development, through time, of new plant communities deriving from either residual soil seed banks of previous plant species that occupied the site or from re-sprouting from surviving root stocks of perennial woody plants or from seeds that are transported into the burned area from neighboring unburned lands by wind or surface water flow. Managed succession includes planting (e.g. tree seedlings) or seeding of native herbaceous (forb and grass) and woody species as a way to speed re-vegetation of the burned landscape that also serves to prevent water and wind erosion of soils and minimize soil loss.

Coordination of restoration activities, and monitoring of the success of various restoration activities—especially those that involve drill seeding, helicopter seeding and aforestation—are challenging because activities are carried out by multiple federal, state and local government agencies and private parties across a patchwork of lands belonging to these various entities. Some entities monitor natural and managed succession and restoration success closely (e.g., Carson City Open Spaces: A. Bollinger, pers. comm.) while others may monitor relatively infrequently or in a less quantitative way, as a function of internal funds available for these efforts. In order to ensure robust science-based management of restoration efforts, however, it is essential to initiate statistically reliable assessment protocols for quantitatively monitoring the outcomes of the various restoration methods/techniques that have been implemented after wildfires by land managers of both lowland shrub ecosystems and upland forested ecosystems. Only through such quantitative analyses, and comparison against natural post-fire plant succession, can the effectiveness of restoration treatments be usefully assessed, and better methods developed.

The objectives of the study we are proposing here are: (1) to compare species composition, abundance and phenology of post-fire plant communities with the same attributes of unburned plant communities in areas that previously had been occupied by mixed species shrub steppe communities (lower elevations) and in forested areas (higher elevations) on the land to the west and southwest of Western Nevada College (Carson City, NV); (2) to evaluate, within these areas, the effects (success) of post-fire seeding on restoration success; and (3) to quantify the effects of prescribed sheep grazing on post-fire and unburned plant communites.


Material & methods:

Study Site and Experimental Design:

In early April 2009, we will establish (mark off with stakes and string) three 2 x 2 m plots in each of the following lowland and upland plant communities located adjacent to Western Nevada College and the Jack C. Davis Observatory in Carson City, Nevada (39o11'N, 119o48'W, 1600 m elevation) to quantify the effects of the 2004 “Waterfall Fire” and post-fire treatments in the following plant communities: (a) lowland unburned shrub areas; (b) lowland post-fire shrub areas; (c) lowland post-fire seeded areas; (d) lowland unburned shrub areas before and after sheep grazing; (e) upland unburned forest understory; (f) upland post-fire forest understory; and (g) upland post-fire seeded and planted understory. We will sample on each of these plots three times during the spring and summer of 2009; once before sheep grazing, once after sheep grazing, and once in mid-summer. Plots will be located near the Jack C. Davis Observatory, Kings Canyon, Ash Canyon, Combs Canyon, and Vicee Canyon as well as near Marlette and Hobart Reservoirs, and upper parts of Snow Valley, Marlette Peak and the south end of Little Valley.

Sampling of each plot will include the following: (1) photographing—with a color digital camera set at the widest angle (zoom)—the plot from each side of the plot from the perspective of the photographer’s eye (1.5 m above ground); (2) photographing the plot from a bird’s eye perspective standing on a 1.8 m (6 foot) tall step ladder with the ladder placed on the edge of the plot—Note that each picture taking location for each shot must be the same on all three sampling dates; (3) counting the number of species present in the plot—i.e., listing the species; (4) estimating the percent of the ground area covered by all plants by projecting plant canopies of shrubs down to the ground and approximating areas covered tuft grasses, forb species, and non-tuft grasses; (5) estimating the percentage of ground covered by green vegetation; and (6) noting the proportion of each plant species that has plants that are flowering or producing fruit. On plots that will be grazed, pre-grazing assessment is critical in quantifying the effects of grazing. Grazed plots will be photographed and surveyed the day, or couple of days, before sheep are released and then one or two days following grazing. To evaluate the mechanism by which sheep feed and affect plots, we will photograph sheep grazing on each plot. To explore the relationship between observed patterns in plant communities over the growing season, we will implant at a depth of 5 cm in the topsoil one TidBit temperature data logger in each of the treatment combinations (a-h, see above) and record hourly temperature. Soil temperature will be used a proxy for growth conditions in each plot and enable us to infer about possible environmental controls of plant and plant community performance.

Personnel responsible for carrying out this work will be Alice Sady, Mike Sady, Ann Bollinger, and Jay Arnone, together with a wider set of interested volunteers.

Data analysis:

All data will be recorded in the field, input to Excel spreadsheets, plotted and then analyzed using one-, two- and three-way analysis of variance (see Zar 1984) and using repeated measures ANOVA (see von Ende 1993). These methods are outlined in (Obrist and others 2003); (Arnone and others 2008).


Expected Results from original proposal:

The research study data will be presented in a final report and presented both locally and statewide—to area schools, college, and agencies with field trips led by the study team to research plots near the WNC and J. C. Davis Observatory—to raise awareness of the consequences of fire on local ecology. Furthermore develop a Waterfall Fire Interpretive Trail with supporting Web site to fulfill K-12 and community outreach supporting climate change and its effects on fire regimes. We may also write up our results for submission to a peer-reviewed ecology journal. The final report to the Nevada NSF EPSCoR office will also detail how the insights gained through doing this research will be integrated into the community college curricula at WNC. The collaboration with Jay Arnone at DRI seeks to fulfill one of the main goals of Nevada’s NSF EPSCoR Climate Change grant by "... involv[ing] research faculty … with participation of NSHE community colleges (Mike Sady)”. Active participation of “high school student”, Alice Sady, “in field studies, data collection, and model [ling]..." also fulfills a goal of the EPSCoR grant. These collaborations, that also include a local land manager—Ann Bollinger of the Carson City Open Spaces office—will invigorate a continuing relationship among faculty and students and land stewards, as well as enhance local science curricula at WNC.

References Cited:

Arnone, J. A. III; Verburg, P. S. J., Johnson, D. W.; Larsen, J. D.; Jasoni, R. L.; Lucchesi, A. J.; Batts, C. M.; von Nagy; C., Coulombe, W. G.; Schorran, D. E.; Buck, P. E.; Braswell, B. H.; Coleman, J. S.; Sherry, R. A.; Wallace, L. L.; Luo, Y.; Schimel, D. S. 2008, Prolonged suppression of ecosystem carbon dioxide uptake following an anomalously warm year, Nature 455:383-386 46.

Baldwin, C. K.; Wagner, F. H.; Lall, U. 2003, Water Resources, Pages 79-112, in Wagner, F. H. (editor), Rocky Mountain/Great Basin Regional Climate-Change Assessment, Report of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Utah State University, Logan, UT: IV 240 pp.

Cayan, D. R.; Kammerdiener, S. A.; Dettinger, M. D.; Caprio, J. M.; Peterson, D. H. 2001, Changes in the onset of spring in the western United States. Bulletin American Meteorological Society, 82:399-415.

McKenzie, D.; Gedalof, Z. M.; Peterson, D. L.; Mote, P. 2004, Climate change, wildfire and conservation, Conservation Biology, 18: 890-902.

Mote, P. W.; Hamlet, A. F.; Clark, M. P.; Lettenmaier, D. P. 2005. Declining mountain snowpack in western North America, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 86: 39-49.

Obrist, D; DeLucia, E. H.; Arnone, J. A. III, 2003, Consequences of wildfire on ecosystem CO2 and water vapor fluxes in the Great Basin, Global Change Biology, 9, 563-574.

Stewart, I. T., Cayan, D. R.; Dettinger, M. D. 2004, Changes in snowmelt timing in western North America under a ‘business as usual’ climate change scenario. Climate Change 62: 217-232.

WRCC-Western Regional Climate Center 2009,


Acknowledgements: The PI, Co-PI’s, and staff of the Climate Change Grant and NSHE EPSCoR office, the National Science Foundation, and the following volunteers for all of their help and efforts:


Astrid Sady


Robert Collier, Director and Professor

Western Nevada College Jack C. Davis Observatory


Arnold Tiehm, Botanist


Ed Blake, Resource Soil Scientist


Minden Service Center


John Doran

Western Nevada College

Buildings and Grounds


Anne Hansen

Western Nevada College

Director, Information & Marketing Services


Larry Calkins

Western Nevada College




Results and Discussion of Study:


The Nevada Infrastructure for Climate Change Science, Education, and Outreach NSF-EPSCoR proposal awarded (Grant) to the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) addresses two basic questions (1) How will climate change affect water resources and linked ecosystem services, and human systems, and (2) How will climate change affect disturbance regimes (e.g. wildfires) and linked systems? This latter question is the focus of our study The Waterfall Fire after five years: An evaluation of postfire sagebrush and forest communities in the Great Basin . We proposed to characterize a fire regime that in the words of the grant awarded to NSHE is located “in the unique natural laboratory of the Great Basin”.  Furthermore, our study under the Ecological Change Component of the Grant sought to fulfill an important objective to study ecological changes at the landscape scale forced by climate change – from wildfires and prolonged droughts.

Wildfires burn with different intensities and frequencies resulting in a wide variety of ecological effects, and climate conditions are a fundamental driver of fire spread; vegetation transitions can occur when fire regimes are altered substantially beyond historical norms, owing to changes in ignition sources or fuel mass, and variations in structure caused by fire protection, grazing, or spread of invasive plants (Bowman and Balch and others 2009) . Western U.S. forest wildfire risks are strongly positively associated with drought concurrent with the summer fire season and (particularly in ponderosa pine-dominant forests); robust statistical associations between wildfire and hydroclimate in these forests indicate that increased wildfire activity over recent decades reflects sub-regional responses to change in climate, e.g. early onset of spring (Westerling and others 2006).

Non-native grasses, including cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), have aggressively invaded the sagebrush steppe ecosystem of the Western U. S. rapidly converting large expanses of native sagebrush to successional postfire communities; in addition management and restoration practices have resulted in a mosaic of community types, dominated by non-native species including annual grasses, forbs and perennial bunchgrasses (Arnone and others 2005).

The Waterfall Fire of 2004 early morning hours of Wednesday, July 14, 2004 what was to become one of the region’s most devastating wildfires broke out in Carson City's Kings Canyon. Six years of drought, fickle winds and a community half heartedly committed to defensible space spread the explosive fire in every direction. The final damage totals – 8799 acres burned, 31 homes lost or damaged, 3 businesses lost or damaged, 32 out buildings lost or damaged and 51 vehicles lost. Rehabilitation of the sagebrush and forest communities affected by the fire began almost immediately, including drill-seeding of the lower elevation shrubland, and aerial seeding and replanting of the higher elevation forest understory, landscapes following the U.S. Forest Service Burned Area Emergency Response Team (BAER) Report assessment. Our study site plots (see material and methods and Appendix B) define areas affected by the fire that were or were not rehabilitated, and the outcome five years hence on the current fire regime landscapes.

Appendix A gives a listing of the forbs and grasses that were collected and positively identified at one or more of the study site plots. Many of the forbs are native to the region, some are native, but in more abundance (higher density, e.g. Palmer’s Penstemon) because they were in the drill-seed mixture (Resource Concepts 2005). The low elevation drill-seed mixture primarily contained Agropyron fragile (Siberian wheatgrass), and yet in our study of three plots and five samples we discovered Agropyron desertorum (desert wheatgrass) to be the only positively identified species in the drill-mix furrows. When one considers the habitat of these introduced bunch grasses it is clear that the desert wheatgrass clearly has a range in North America defined by the western United States compared with the Siberian wheatgrass which is found in Canadian provinces and some Intermountain regions. This could suggest a putative climate change factor favoring species of grasses five years postfire climatized to a warmer environment. In some respects this is precisely what we did not expect to find but provides yet another example of climate change and its effects on fire landscapes.

 Appendix C validates the precipitation and temperature profiles that would result in a climate changing toward a warmer and earlier onset of Spring in the Carson City Nevada region and associated watersheds (Ash Canyon). From 1976 to 2006 the monthly average temperature of March is nearly 1 degree Celsius higher than the previous 30 years (WRCC). Furthermore the preceding 5 years before the Waterfall Fire in 2004 were below average in precipitation. A warmer March, earlier onset of Spring, longer and drier Summer, and below average runoff could be the forcing factors necessary to producing this particular western forest fire similar to the others mentioned and documented above.

However this does not take away from the rehabilitation efforts which our Study Site Plots Survey of April pre-sheep grazing, Study Plot Survey of June post-sheep grazing, Study Site Plots Survey of July mid-summer, verify were successful by all standards of measurements. For example the plots in study site 1c and 3c verify the desired target density of .3 to 2.0 plants per sq. ft. for the Intermountain West (USDA TN No. 12 2008). In plots 1c1, 2, 3 the average density of desert wheatgrass exceeds 1.0 plant per sq. ft. The aerial-seeded plots in 2c do not quite meet this value, but did show an abundance of native grasses that were collected and positively identified (e.g. Indian ricegrass, Western needlegrass). This would appear to suggest that any natural rehabilitation forces are not running at odds to the human rehabilitation efforts. Sheep-grazing has reduced the fuel load in plots 1c and 3c but did not appear to have an adverse affect on the growth and sustainability of the bunchgrasses, nor did it affect the abundance of native grasses and forbs.

The unburned sagebrush plots of 1a and 2a appeared to be devoid of cheatgrass and erodium in sharp contrast to their neighboring sites of plots 1b (which had no fire rehabilitation treatment). One explanation from time-studied fire ecology studies in the California chaparral is best explained from an alleopathic chemical connection: namely the hydrocarbon chemicals produced and secreted into the soil by sagebrush and other shrubs that prevent annual grasses from competing for resources are burned by the fires and require several years of ecological fire succession to naturally rehabilitate the landscape (Harborne 1993). Plots 1a and 2a are devoid of any annuals or cheatgrass. The firebreak in plot 2a3 contains native forbs (e.g. cryptantha spp.), but in this unburned area is thriving undergoing re-growth but without any presence of invasive weeds. So the fuel reduction efforts of fire-breaks and sheep-grazing do not appear in our study to adversely affect the native and natural rehabilitation of the fire regime landscape.

The effort to replant pine trees in the understory area of plots 1g has not been as successful. Clearly invasive grasses are competing for the resources, as evident from the abundance of cheatgrass on a scale reported elsewhere in Northern Nevada post fire regimes and no doubt contributes to the fire danger and risk of future wildfires (Bollinger and Perryman 2008).

Future studies of these sites will be enhanced by the Waterfall Fire Interpretive Trail which was developed as a living outdoor classroom for the community, K-12 outreach, and curricular reform on the topic of climate change and fire ecology in the community college programs.

Soil temperature and moisture data will provide useful insights about each study plot and should be ready for ensuing years’ study after the installation of sensors at the Jack C. Davis Observatory Weather Station.

Key Words

fire regime, climate change, Bromus tectorum, postfire plant succession, sagebrush, forest understory

References Cited

Ann P. Bollinger and Barry L. Perryman, 20 years of natural recovery after Wildfire on northern Nevada Rangelands. USDA Forest Service Proc. RMRS-P-52. (2008) (accessed 07.12.09)


Prater MR, Obrist D, Arnone JA III, Delucia EH (2005)

Net carbon exchange and evapotranspiration in post-fire and intact sagebrush communities in the Great Basin. Oecologia 146:595-607.


J. B. Harborne in Introduction to Ecological Biochemistry, 4th edition, Academic Press (1993).

U S Forest Service BAER report (accessed 07.12.09)

David M. J. S. Bowman, Jennifer K. Balch, et al. Fire in the Earth System Science 24 April 2009: Vol. 324. no. 5926, pp. 481 – 484.

Nevada Infrastructure for Climate Change Science, Education, and Outreach NSF-EPSCoR Grant (accessed 07.12.09)


2005 Waterfall Fire Seeding Success Summary, Resource Concepts, Carson City, NV. (accessed 07.12.09)

A. L. Westerling, H. G. Hidalgo, D. R. Cayan, and T. W. Swetnam. Warming and Earlier SpringIncrease Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity Science 18 August 2006 313: 940-943.

Waterfall Fire of 2004 (accessed 07.12.09).



The following Study Sites were chosen 04.10.09 by M Sady, in consultation with J Arnone and A Bollinger during a site visit 03.20.09. There are three sample plots chosen at random within each study site plot. See Materials and Methods of proposal for details.


(a) Lowland unburned shrub areas;

Plot #1a Sagebrush at end of Viceee Cyn along bike path WNC.

Plot #2a East of WNC Observatory to north of planetary walk (subjected in past year to clearing firebreak by WNC staff.


(b) Lowland post-fire shrub areas;

Plot #1b South of planetary walk by Observatory on WNC.


(c) Lowland post-fire seeded areas;

Plot #1c Drill-seeded south of Vicee Cyn along bike path WNC.

Plot #2c Aerial seeding west of Aspen Bldg on WNC.

Plot #3c Drill-seed West of Observatory at WNC (monitored for last three years by A Bollinger)


(d) Lowland unburned shrub areas before and after sheep grazing;

Plot site yet to be determined


(e) Upland unburned forest understory;

Plot #1e NDF-Lakeview Trailhead to north side


(f) Upland post-fire forest understory;

Plot site yet to be determined


(g) Upland post-fire seeded and planted understory.

Plot #1g NDF-Lakeview Trailhead to south side


Web links:

List of Plant Species at Study Sites Appendix A. observed (O) or collected (X) at the Waterfall Fire Study sites during the Spring and Summer months of 2009.


Appendix B. Waterfall Fire Study Site Plots as mapped on Google EarthTM 08.26.07


Appendix C. Climate modeling data global and Nevada


Study Site Plots Survey of 04.14.09 with pics

Study Site Plots Survey of 04.14.09 before sheep grazing; Waterfall Fire Study of

2m x 2m square plots identified and marked 04.10.09.


Study Site Plots Survey of 05.29.09 with pics

Study Site Plots Survey of 05.29.09 after sheep grazing; Waterfall Fire Study of

2m x 2m square plots identified and marked 04.10.09.


Study Site Plots Survey of 07.06.09 with pics

Study Site Plots Survey of 07.06.09 mid-summer; Waterfall Fire Study of

2m x 2m square plots identified and marked 04.10.09.


Waterfall Fire Interpretive Trail Map/Guide


Climate Change / Fire Ecology Curricular Resources: Web sites & Journals, Groups & Meetings, Grants


Undergraduate Opportunities for Climate Change Grant '09-'10


WNC Press Release  Press release on study.


WNC eHappenings  Copy of first public walk on the Interpretive trail.


WNC Library Climate Change Subject Guide Resources

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