TRU faculty member sets up first-ever tree ring lab on campus

Dr. Jill Harvey discusses her use of tree rings to understand fires' effect on the Interior

The Government of Canada CRC Chairs Program invests up to $295 million per year to attract and retain some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds including Dr. Jill Harvey. (Submitted)

Incoming TRU faculty member and Canadian Research Chair (CRC) in Fire Ecology, Dr. Jill Harvey, is investigating how wildfires and drought impact forests within the BC Interior. Her research is multifaceted and looks to study the history of past wildfires in the Interior parts of British Columbia and the contemporary responses of forests in terms of recovery to more recent fires. 

Harvey says that one of the leading research approaches used to determine the impact of wildfires and drought on the Interior within her studies is the use of knowledge gained through the study of tree rings. Because of this, Harvey has received a grant from the Canadian Foundation of Innovation to set up the first-ever tree ring laboratory on Thompson Rivers University’s campus. 

“I just love studying tree rings because it is something that just about everyone is familiar with,” says Harvey. “At some point, everyone has wandered down a forest trail or seen a cut tree stump and counted the rings to figure out just how old the tree really is.”

“But there is so much more to tree rings,” says Harvey. “We can actually measure the width of each individual tree ring and also look at the cells in tree rings to get a lot of other types of information.” 

For example, Harvey says by studying tree rings, “scientists can get information about the climate conditions that existed when specific tree rings were put onto the tree. They can also get information about insects that may have affected the tree throughout its lifetime.” 

Further, Harvey says that through the study of tree rings, “scientists can look at the history of fires in trees. [Scientists] are actually able to exactly date or assign a year to every single individual tree ring,” she says. “If able to look at those individual tree rings, [scientists] are then able to identify fire scars within the tree ring record and can build what [scientists] call an annual result record of fires.”

So, scientists such as Harvey can date every individual fire that affected a tree over potentially a 500-year interval if that is how old the specific tree is that scientists are studying. Harvey says, “there is a really rich and interesting record scientists can access through the study of tree rings.”

Harvey says, “[she] is excited to build [the tree ring laboratory] and involve both graduate students and undergrad students in her research at TRU because of this.”

Additionally, Harvey hopes to examine cultural legacies of Indigenous burning here in the Interior. She says, “when considering the historical context of wildfires, [she] has done a lot of research where [she] has looked at how frequently wildfires have occurred on Interior landscapes.”

“One of the pieces of the puzzle that is missing from the way [she has] interpreted historical wildfire records, though, is the long and rich history of Indigenous uses of traditional fire on the landscape,” Harvey says.

Harvey stated she is very interested in learning the perspectives of the Secwepemc community in terms of wildfire records. She hopes to find out if there are intersections between Indigenous knowledge and approaches she uses within her research to identify historic wildfires. “Ultimately, [she’d] be very interested to see if any change on the landscape was driven potentially by the traditional use of fire,” she says.