Routt National Forest hydrologist, Fullbright award winner working to develop wildfire response in Portugal |

Routt National Forest hydrologist, Fullbright award winner working to develop wildfire response in Portugal

Routt National Forest hydrologist Liz Schnackenberg traveled to Portugal for two weeks in March to help Portuguese forest managers learn how to best respond to wildfires.
Photo by Eleanor C. Hasenbeck

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When a wildfire burns through an area, it doesn’t just char the trees. It can alter the soil, which impacts how water flows through a landscape and what can grow there in the future.

Routt National Forest Hydrologist Liz Schnackenberg is on a team that figures out how a wildfire impacted an area — and its soils — to determine what kind of response is needed. It’s a program used by federal agencies that respond to wildfires called a Burned Area Emergency Response.

Earlier this year, Schnackenberg earned a Fullbright Specialist award to spend two weeks in Portugal helping the nation build a similar program.

The Fullbright Specialist program is part of the U.S. Department of State’s larger Fullbright program. The competitive program pairs American academics and professionals with host institutions abroad to share expertise and exchange skills.

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In March, Schnackenberg traveled to work with the Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e das Florestas, the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests, the Portuguese federal agency that manages the nation’s forests.

In the U.S., Schnackenberg works with other natural resource professionals to determine how a fire has impacted a watershed to mitigate or warn the public of risks to property and resources. The Forest Service also works with other agencies to minimize these threats, for example, by enlarging a culvert to prevent flood damage as water runs off a burned area.

“When people see fires, they see the big flames, and they see that things are black, and then the fire’s over, and they’re like ‘Phew, my house didn’t burn,’ or whatever it was, but then comes the after effects,” she said. “When a fire burns, what we’re looking at is what are the effects on watershed condition and in particular, what are effects on soils.”

Once a fire is contained — or even before if it poses a high risk — a Burned Area Emergency Response team jumps into action to identify threats created by a singed landscape. Schnackenberg has worked in post-fire response across the Western U.S. and abroad in Australia and Portugal.

Schnackenberg spends a lot of time thinking about soils, particularly when analyzing a burn site.

 A fire can change properties of the soil, she said, making it more prone to erosion, flooding and debris flows. Bare, burned soil is also frequently a good bed for weeds and invasive plants.

As big burns become more common in the nation, Portuguese foresters are learning to manage the flames.

In the last century, forests are growing in Portugal as much of the population has moved from rural, agricultural communities to urban areas, Schnackenberg said. The rise of the paper industry has also increased the number of eucalyptus trees and other foreign species in Portuguese forests. These plants are quick to burn and quick to grow back.

“The amount of area prone to burning in big fires has increased because it’s gone from agricultural to forested, and the types of tree species have also changed,” she said.

In 2017, post-fire response rose to the forefront in Portugal as a series of deadly fires in June took 64 lives. In December 2017, Schnackenberg spent a week in Portugal sharing how the Burned Area Emergency Response program works to identify threats created by contained fires, so she was familiar with some of the issues the country faces in responding to a wildfire. 

Portuguese officials were interested in following through to develop a similar program, she said, but they needed assistance doing it.

“Conceptually, they get it, but they wanted some help in terms of getting a little more into the details,” she said.

Schnackenberg started in Lisbon, meeting with members of the Portuguese forest management institute and other local agencies to understand the project. Then she traveled around the country, visiting sites of recent fires and working to understand how they respond to fires and what needed to be in place to develop a program similar to the Burned Area Emergency Response program in Portugal.

That meant looking at a lot of burned soils. For her, this was among the best parts of the trip — demonstrating the American processes and “seeing the light bulb go off” on things the institute could improve on as it responds to fires.

Her trip closed with a workshop for local natural resource managers about the American response to fires.

The hope, she said, is Portuguese specialists will be able to travel to the U.S. to do hands-on work with burn response specialists here to learn how the Burned Area Emergency Response program operates.

“They definitely have an interest in pursuing this, and I have an interest in pursuing this,” she said.  

Schnackenberg plans to continue to be involved in the project, though she has obligations in her home office managing Routt National Forest.

“There is no doubt Liz is an asset to the Hahns Peak Bears Ears Ranger District office as well as the U.S. Forest Service,” District Ranger Tara Umphries wrote in an email to Steamboat Pilot & Today. “The Hahns Peak Bears Ears Ranger District greatly values her contributions and abilities within her field of hydrology, in addition to being an insightful and positive contributor towards the overall functioning of Hahns Peak Bears Ears Ranger District.”

Schnackenberg participated in the Fullbright program on her own time, and she jokes that she wouldn’t mind taking a vacation with her husband, too.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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