Capturing Post-Wildfire Recovery Through Timelapse Photography

Last week, I posted that I’d been up at our Niobrara Valley Preserve, helping to set up timelapse cameras to document the recovery of that site from the wildfire last July.  Back in February, photographer Michael Forsberg, Jeff Dale, Rich Walters, and I picked out preliminary locations for nine cameras.  Jeff then built the camera systems, and we got them installed and started up last Tuesday and Wednesday.

Mike and Jeff are part of Moonshell Media, the group we’re contracting with for this project.  You may have seen their work before – most of the Moonshell Media staff are also working on the Platte Basin Timelapse project, which includes video from one of our Platte River wetland restoration projects, along with numerous other stories of water and the Platte River from headwaters to mouth.

A timelapse camera, taking a photo every daylight hour, will record the change in this landscape view over the next several years.

This timelapse camera will be taking a photo every daylight hour for the next several years, recording the recovery of this landscape from the Fairfield Creek wildfire in July 2012.

The timelapse project at the Niobrara Valley Preserve is being funded by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, as part of a larger project to study the aftermath of the wildfire and generate information to help reduce negative impacts from similar events in the future.  Eacn of our nine cameras will be taking one photo every hour, during daylight hours, for at least several years.  An additional camera will be a mobile unit that we’ll move from location to location to document short-term changes or events.  The cameras will help us tell the overall story of wildfire recovery, but will also link with and help illustrate the results of several research projects happening in the same places.

Here are some photos of the installation last week, along with descriptions of what some of the cameras will be documenting.  I will, of course, let you know when/where videos from the project can be viewed when its time.

Jeff Dale fastens a camera mount near the top of a windmill tower.

Jeff Dale fastens a camera mount near the top of a windmill tower.

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The "windmill cam" will capture a wide view of bison-grazed sandhill prairie as it greens up this spring, but will also follow it over the next several years, as dynamic patterns of bison grazing, weather, and prescribed fires shape its habitat structure and species composition.

The “windmill cam” will capture a wide view of bison-grazed sandhill prairie as it greens up this spring, and then will follow it over the next several years, as dynamic patterns of bison grazing, weather, and prescribed fires shape its habitat structure and species composition.

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Jeff Dale and David Weber install a camera that will look straight down a steep slope in the burned pine woodland on the ridge north of the river.  Among other things, this camera will help capture evidence of any soil erosion that occurs over time.

Jeff Dale and David Weber install a camera that will look straight down a steep slope on the ridge north of the river. Among other things, this camera will help capture evidence of any soil erosion that occurs over time under the burned ponderosa pine woodland.

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This camera is set up to record any sediment that pools up at the base of the (formerly) pine-covered ridge north of the river.  In addition, it will record the resprouting of several oak trees growing within the frame.

This camera is set up to record any sediment that pools up at the base of the (formerly) pine-covered ridge. In addition, it will record the resprouting of several oak trees growing within the frame.

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This camera was installed on a new fenceline - moved after the initial fence was destroyed by fire.  The new fenceline moves the south end of the bison pasture into what was formerly cattle pasture.  This camera will record differences in the recovery of prairie grazed year-round by bison (left) vs. prairie grazed by cattle.  One of many differences we expect to see is that yucca will likely disappear on the left side of the fence due to year-round grazing by bison.  Winter grazing (by either cattle OR bison) suppresses yucca, which is rarely grazed at all during the summer.

This camera was installed on a new fenceline - rebuilt in a new location after the initial fence was destroyed by fire. The new fence location expands the south end of the bison pasture into what was formerly cattle pasture. The camera will record differences in the recovery of prairie grazed year-round by bison (left) vs. prairie grazed only periodically by cattle. One of many differences we expect to see is that yucca will largely disappear in the bison pasture. Winter grazing (by either cattle OR bison) suppresses yucca, which is rarely grazed at all during the summer.

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How fast will this sandhills blowout carve away recently-burned sand prairie?  Our camera will help us find out.  Based on previous experience with summer fires, we don't expect to see any significant increase in wind erosion, but this camera (combined with aerial photograph, and perhaps on-the-ground measurements) will allow us to test that assumption.

How fast will this sandhills blowout carve away recently-burned sand prairie? Our camera will help us find out. Based on previous experience with summer fires, we don’t expect to see any significant increase in wind erosion, but this camera (combined with aerial photographs, and perhaps on-the-ground measurements) will allow us to test that assumption.

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Jeff digs a hole for the camera I'm most excited about.  This camera will focus on a 8x10 foot rectangle of bison-grazed prairie, looking straight down on it from above.  Over the next several years, we should be able to watch the plant community recover from the fire, but we'll also see yearly differences in which species bloom, and when, in response to weather, grazing, future fires, etc.  We can also record any long-term changes in the plant composition within this area.

Jeff digs a post hole for the camera I’m most excited about. This camera will focus on a 8×10 foot rectangle of bison-grazed prairie, looking straight down on it from above. Over the next several years, we should be able to watch the plant community recover from the fire, but we’ll also see yearly differences in which species bloom, when they bloom, and how they respond to weather, grazing, future fires, etc. We can also record any long-term changes in the plant composition within this area.

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We want to see how the plant community will recover in areas formerly underneath dense cedar now that those cedars are dead.  We expect lots of weeds, but hope not to see many truly invasive plants.

We want to see how the plant community will recover underneath dense cedar trees now that those cedars are dead. We expect lots of weeds, but hope not to see many truly invasive plants.

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Jeff, the technical wizard who designed most of the equipment that makes the cameras work right, explains how they work.  I got some of it, I think...

Jeff, the technical wizard who designed most of the timelapse camera systems, explains how to adjust them and keep them working.  I followed some of it, I think…

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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17 Responses to Capturing Post-Wildfire Recovery Through Timelapse Photography

  1. Nat says:

    Is Jeff will to share (post) his setup somewhere or is it proprietary?

  2. Green Knight says:

    Just hearing the name Niobrara takes me back to when i first read “The Immense Journey” by Loren Eiseley back in the ’60s. Keep up the good work, ya.

  3. Angela Anderson says:

    What an exiting project. I visited the Preserve, didn’t know it was closed, September 2012 on my way back from the Sandhills. Plants were already sprouting in the open areas.

  4. Dennis Adams says:

    Chris,

    This time lapse photo project is a great idea. I’m very interested in the post fire recovery, particularlyl the woodlands.

  5. Ed May says:

    Hi Chris, Very interesting project. Great idea too. What was the cost to TNC to have Moonshell Media do this? Thank you, Ed

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Ed – The Environmental Trust covered the cost, so no out of pocket to TNC except the time and travel to do the installation (and long-term work to get the data and keep them running).

  6. Becky says:

    Bet the bison will enjoy their new scratching posts! ; ) What a great project that will keep you busy writing papers for a long time………….

  7. Bob Zybach says:

    This is an excellent use of modern technology. For good examples of repeat photography methods — using outdated cameras — check out the work of Progulske in South Dakota, Charles Kay in Utah (much of it online), and Fred Hall and Jack Ward Thomas in eastern Oregon.

    When this information is combined with early land survey data, historical maps and photos, and oral history interviews, a very sound basis for restoration planning is established.

  8. wyominglife says:

    What a great idea to help us gain understanding of veg community changes/recovery. Are there any similar projects that you know of where years of photography have already been accumulated?

  9. Pingback: Capturing Post-Wildfire Recovery Through Timelapse Photography | Moonshell Media

  10. This will be very interesting to follow. You have my attention.

  11. Dan Tarpley says:

    I am one of the owners of the TNT ranch which is directly across from the TNC land. Your project will be very interesting to see how the land recovers from the fire. I would like to know if there are any aerial images of this area also? Dan T

  12. Pingback: A Visual Update of Wildfire Recovery at the Niobrara Valley Preserve | The Prairie Ecologist

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