Drones are setting down roots in wildfire-scarred landscapes

Drones flew over a fire-charred landscape in British Columbia last November, dropping thousands of tree seeds onto the blackened ground. The flights were part of an experimental trial to reseed First Nations forests lost to the monumentally devastating 2017 fire season. With drones by their side, people in the area hope reforestation could accelerate — especially because forest fires are getting worse.

2017 was one of the worst fire seasons ever in British Columbia. Nearly 800,000 hectares went up in smoke, taking houses, cars and trees with them. It was devastating for local residents and First Nations communities in the area. During that season, 20 different fires amalgamated into the Plateau complex. (At the time, it was the largest recorded fire in the county’s history.) Although wildfires are a naturally occurring hazard that has existed for millennia, in recent decades climate change and human activity have increased the prevalence of wildfires, in addition to exacerbating how severe they scorch.

“A lot of these areas have had wildfires, some of these areas have burned so hot that there’s no seedling regeneration,” says Percy Guichon. Guichon is the director of Central Chilcotin Rehabilitation, a reforestation and land management company in British Columbia. He is from the Tŝideldel First Nation community that is working with the Tl’etinqox First Nations government to reseed the forests where the fires of the Plateau complex burned. Both are local communities affected by the devastating fires.

Drones and workers at the Tŝideldel project in British Columbia.
Image: DroneSeed

Trees can normally regenerate through the scattering of pinecones by the wind or with the help of animals. But if a fire gets too hot, seeds can’t survive and trees can regrow naturally in charred soil. To help rebuild forests, communities are turning to technological alternatives, including drones.

“We just wanted to find another planting method that would complement our current, traditional planting methods with tree planters,” says Guichon. Manual tree planting is done in groups and is hard work: Individuals carry a long-handled spade and a 40-pound bag of saplings and alternate soil and plant the baby tree in the hole. The process is often started early in the morning when the soil is moist. Following strict quality and density guidelines, manual tree planting can yield between 1,000 and 3,000 trees per day.

A drone used during the Tŝideldel project.
Image: DroneSeed

Drones do things differently. For the pilot program, the group of Guichon and the government reporting agency Forest Enhancement Society of British Columbia bought pine and pine seeds from a nursery in California and sent them to DroneSeed, a Seattle agrotech startup. “They put the seeds in the small vessel, the puck, which contains a mix of soil and nutrients to give the seeds the best chance of germination,” says Guichon.

In the first round of drone plantings, about 10,000 pucks per acre were dropped – about 52 acres in total. The team plans to continue monitoring the growth of the pines and spruces planted over the spring and summer to see if the seeds will germinate and “take up” into the soil.

Bushels of cones drying in the cone shed at Silvaseed, a supplier of forestry seed. Silvaseed was recently acquired by DroneSeed.
Image: DroneSeed

The hope is that the half-million seedlings planted by drones will restore the scorched forest faster than it could alone. “If it’s a mile to the nearest living tree, it’s going to take a long time for seed to get there, and so people can step in there, including with drone technology, to help restore and long-term development of the area,” said John Bailey, a professor at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry.

While drone seeding is unlikely to ever completely replace manual planting, the technology is gaining popularity in regions ravaged by wildfires. Additional efforts have been made to reseed in British Columbia, Washington State and other parts of the Pacific Northwest. Much of the effort involves working with forest rangers, local governments and landowners affected by wildfires. When it comes to sowing drones, land surveys are easier to do and drones can reach places where manual planting poses problems, such as remote locations and sharp slopes.

Bailey says there are important things to consider when using drones to reseed forests. Some areas in particular may not be hospitable to the seeded pucks. “Lower elevation, lower latitudes, south-facing, steep slopes: they can also get very hot, and if you’ve lost all or most of the canopy to mediate the heat, that can be a very harsh environment, even for a seedling that you plant in the ground, let alone a new seed that germinates,” Bailey says.

The results of the trial in British Columbia will come in over the next year and will hopefully yield some positive — and bountiful — findings. Data from these test runs will be used to shape the future of drone seeding studies, puck drop techniques and reforestation projects.

Even if the seeds dispersed by drones fail to take root, there is still hope that the forest will return. It can just take a very long time. As Bailey likes to tell his students, “Those areas will be forest again, but it could just be hundreds of years.”

SOURCE – www.theverge.com

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