The National Science Foundation has given an $860,000 grant to researchers at the University of Montana. Phil Higuera is an associate professor of fire ecology in UM’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation and he says this money will be used to reconstruct the history of large wildfires in two regions of the Rocky Mountains over the past 2,500 years.

“We actually use mud that is deposited at the bottom of lakes,” said Higuera. “In each layer of the sediment records we can look at different proxies for when fires occurred, what the forest vegetation was like and in some cases we can infer what the climate was like before, during and after large fire events.”

According to Higuera, researchers will use small rubber rafts that float on the lake’s surface to collect their samples.

“We collect all the cores manually with a plastic tube that is about three inches in diameter,” Higuera said. “We drop that down to the bottom and we collect anywhere from three feet to 30 feet of sediment depending on how far back in time we want to go and depending on the rate of sediment accumulation in the lake.”

Higuera and graduate student Kyra Wolf will focus on developing these records from 12 sites along the Montana-Idaho border.