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Northern Research Station
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You are here: NRS Home / Research Programs / Forest Disturbance Processes / Science to support National Fire and Fuels Strategy
Forest Disturbance Processes

Science to Support National Fire and Fuels Strategy

The Northern Research Station’s (NRS) Fire R&D Program is built upon the framework established by the USDA Forest Service’s Wildland Fire and Fuels Research and Development (WFFRD) Strategic Plan – a 10-year plan (through 2015) that outlines a national fire research and science application program to meet the needs of land managers, stakeholders, and other clients.  The plan identifies four research portfolio areas for organizing fire research and product development activities in the agency:  (1)  Core Fire Science (science to improve our understanding of combustion processes, fuels, fire weather, fire behavior, and fire transitions); (2)  Ecological and Environmental Fire Science (science to improve our understanding of the interactions among fire, other natural disturbance processes, and the physical and biological components of ecosystems and the environment);  (3)  Social Fire Science (science to improve our understanding of the social and economic dimensions of fire and fuels management);  and (4)  Integrated Fire and Fuels Management Research  (landscape analysis and integrated interdisciplinary research to quantify the interacting effects of management strategies on ecology, environment, and society).

The NRS conducts research and develops new products within each of these portfolio areas to address both national and regional fire issues relevant to forest ecosystems in the Midwest and Northeast.  The regional issues include relatively high rural human populations intermingling with forested systems; air-quality concerns related to the use of fire for fuels management; several ecosystems historically disturbed by fire now losing fire-dependent biodiversity after decades of effective fire suppression; and some highly flammable ecosystems inhabited by citizens largely unfamiliar with fire risk and disturbance. 

Selected Research Studies

[image:]logo of the North Atlantic Fires Science ConsortiumNorth Atlantic Fire Science Consortium
We developed a computer model to help fire managers evaluate and improve the deployment of wildfire suppression resources. Our model optimizes both seasonal deployment and daily dispatch decisions.


 [photo:] Wildfire control in Georgia forest. Photo from Georgia Forestry Commission Archive, Georgia Forestry Commission, Bugwood.orgImproving the Deployment of Wildland Fire Suppression Resources
We developed a computer model to help fire managers evaluate and improve the deployment of wildfire suppression resources. Our model optimizes both seasonal deployment and daily dispatch decisions.


[photo:] Trees burn at night during an intense wildfire in Autralia.  Photo provided by NOAA.Fire severity and ecosystem impacts immediately following an extreme fire event in northern Minnesota
Large-scale natural disturbances have critical implications for both short-term and long-term ecosystem dynamics.  They can radically change landscape structure, vegetation characteristics, soil and soil nutrient retention, and biogeochemical cycling, with repercussions for ecosystem structure and function that can persist for decades to centuries.  Among the most important disturbance attributes is severity, that is, the combined function of the disturbance intensity and the relative susceptibility of ecosystem elements such as vegetation and soils.



[photo:] Trees burn at night during an intense wildfire in Autralia.  Photo provided by NOAA.What Can the U.S. Learn from the Australian Stay-and-Defend-or-Leave-Early Approach to Fighting Wildfires?
In Australia, the “Stay and Defend or Leave Early” (SDLE) approach is that residents should decide well before a fire whether they will choose to leave when a fire threatens but is not yet in the area, or whether they will stay and actively defend their property during the fire.  SDLE also strongly encourages residents to make appropriate preparations in advance for either staying or leaving.


[photo:] A helicopter seen from below (photo by Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University).Improving the Process for Awarding Firefighting Helicopter Contracts
U.S. Forest Service aviation managers needed a better, more reliable, and transparent process for awarding helicopter service contracts for wildfire suppression activities.


[photo:] A wildfire moving up behind a farmhouse.  Photo provided by BLM.Wildfire Management in Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Areas
Our research focuses on where WUI areas are located now, where we can expect the WUI to expand in the future, and the implications for land managers and other decisions makers. We have used census, land cover, and land use data to look at how and where natural areas are influenced by human development.


[photo:] This California house’s architectural design helps it resist fire. It is also made of fire-resistant building materials and has fire-wise vegetation in its landscaping.Social Aspects of Creating Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs)
CWPPs are relatively new in the U.S. and few communities have experienced wildfires since creating CWPPs.  As more communities complete the process of creating CWPPs – and put them into action before, during, and after wildfires – we can learn from their successes and missteps.


[photo:] Prairie burn to stimulate new growth and recycle nutrients at Konza Biological Research Station, Manhattan, KS (photo by Jeff Vanuga).Public Perceptions of Fire Mitigation on Public Lands
We conducted public opinion research in communities near national forests in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. We asked for residents’ perspectives on (1) fuel reduction practices and related risks, (2) confidence in the U.S. Forest Service to effectively implement treatments, and (3) interactions between the Forest Service and forest communities.


[photo:] Tower used in fire research at Silas Little Experimental ForestFire and Fuels Research at the Silas Little Experimental Forest
The Silas Little Experimental Forest was reinstated using National Fire Plan funding in 2003 to conduct multi-disciplinary fire and atmospheric science research to provide fire and forest managers with better tools for predicting fire danger, fire risk, air quality, and ecosystem functioning under changing environmental conditions. 


[image:] Output from a havitat suitability simulation.Cumulative Effects of Succession, Management, and Disturbance on Forest Landscapes
Multi-resource forest planning and management requires knowledge of the long-term, large-scale cumulative effects of alternative management strategies.  For common management goals such as sustaining forest biodiversity, providing habitat for desired wildlife species, and reducing forest fragmentation this requires spatially explicit forecasting tools that enable resource managers to map the spatial arrangement of forest size structure, species composition, wildlife habitat suitability, timber volume, and other attributes over time for large forest landscapes.   


[image:] An example of how models are linked to understand climate and disturbance impacts on forested landscapes.  Linking Population, Ecosystem, Landscape, and Climate Models to Evaluate Climate Adaptation Strategies
Climate change and forest mortality from disturbance agents such as fire and insects are among the top challenges facing natural resource management.  Landscape change will result from interactions among climate change; land use and management; and population, ecosystem, and landscape processes.  Approaches to forecasting landscape change have commonly addressed a subset of these factors but rarely have they all be considered.  Land managers and planners need knowledge of how these factors will interact and modeling tools to assess the effects of mitigation strategies.   


Forest Inventory & Analysis
The Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program of the USDA Forest Service has been monitoring the nation's forest resources for more than 75 years. The program's systematic, geo-referenced, multi-phase inventory represents the most comprehensive, consistent, and current assessment of US forests available. The FIA inventory is well-suited to provide answers to the multitude of fire and forest management questions.



PhotoEastern Area Modeling Consortium
The Eastern Area Modeling Consortium (EAMC) is a multi-agency coalition of researchers, fire managers, air-quality managers, and natural resource managers at the federal, state, and local levels. As part of this group, NRS researchers are working to (1) increase understanding of fire behavior and smoke dispersion; (2) expand knowledge of the physics of fire–atmosphere interactions; (3) enhance prediction and response to the dangers of prescribed fires and wildfires; and (4) develop products and transfer new technologies related to national and regional fire-weather and air-quality dynamics. In addition, the EAMC provides two types of weather products for fire managers: maps showing current and future weather patterns over various regions of the United States and time series products indicating likely weather changes in at a given location over a 48-hour period.


[photo:] 2008 Wildfire on Council Grounds, Wisconsin by Richard LaValleyStudying fire mitigation strategies in multi-ownership landscapes: Balancing management of fire-dependent ecosystems and fire risk.
Fire risk mitigation within multi-owner landscapes containing flammable but fire-dependent ecosystems epitomizes the complexities of managing public lands.  The cumulative effects of fire and forest management over the last century have exacerbated fire risk in some regions and threatened fire-dependent systems in many others.  The issue is further complicated by the recent encroachment of human homes into fire prone ecosystems that simultaneously increase fire ignitions and increase demands on fire suppression agencies to protect lives and property.  Consequently, the balance between forest restoration, human rural development, and fire risk remains an issue of major concern to natural resource agencies.


[photo:] Moderate-intensity surface fire in mixed-oak forestEcosystem Management Study: Restoration of Mixed-oak Forests with Prescribed Fire
Historically, fire was a frequent disturbance process in the mixed-oak forests of the central hardwoods region. Fire control has altered forest structure and composition. Forests are more dense and the sustainability of oak and hickory dominance is now threatened by an abundance of shade-tolerant and fire sensitive tree species such as red maple, sugar maple, and beech. Prescribed fire has been advocated to promote and sustain open-structured mixed-oak forests and the plants and animals that have adapted to these communities. However, long-term research on fire effects is lacking.


[photo:] Redring milkweed (Asclepias variegata), growing in an Ohio mixed-oak forest after repeated prescribed fires.Plant Diversity in Managed Forests
The great majority of plant diversity in forests is contained in the herbaceous layer, comprised of both herbaceous and woody species.  We seek a better understanding of how forest management activities affect plant diversity.  NRS-2 scientists are investigating the direct and indirect effects of timber harvesting, prescribed burning, herbicide application, and deer browsing (alone and in combination) on plant composition and diversity in mixed oak, Allegheny, and Northern Hardwood forests.


[image:]  Map of contigous USA - shows locations of FFS sitesFire and Fire Surrogate Treatments: The Central Appalachian Plateau Site
Current forests in many fire-dependent ecosystems of the United States are denser and more spatially uniform, have many more small trees and fewer large trees than did their presettlement counterparts. Causes include fire suppression, past livestock grazing and timber harvests, and changes in land use. The results include a general deterioration in forest ecosystem integrity and the threat of losing important, widespread forest types. Such conditions are prevalent nationally, especially in forests with historically short-interval, low- to moderate-severity fire regimes, such as the upland oak forests of the central hardwoods region.   


[image:]   Burned area determined from multiple infrared heat release images taken from an aircraft during a prescribed fire in the Ohio Hills.Fuels and Fire Behavior in Eastern Hardwoods
An ability to predict fuel loads and fire behavior are needed to improve prescriptions for prescribed fire and answer questions about smoke emissions and transport and fire effects on flora and fauna. Our fuels and fire behavior research seeks to develop process-based (mechanistic) approaches to predicting fuel characteristics and fire behavior, with particular focus on hardwoods in Appalachian topography.


[photo:]  Red maple stem heating experiment.Fire Effects in Eastern Forests
Understanding fire effects requires consideration of the processes by which the effects occur.  We are applying process-based (mechanistic) approaches to modeling fire effects on endangered Indiana bats and fire-caused tree injury and mortality.  Fires pose risks for bats but also provide opportunities for improving bat roosting habitat, our project considers both sides of the problem. 


[photo:] The eddy flux tower at Silas Little Experimental Forest.  Measurements of energy, water vapor and net CO2 exchange started in April 2004.  Annual net CO2 exchange (NEEyr) measured at this site ranges between 187 and -293 g C m-2 yr-1, with the largest C loss value corresponding with complete defoliation by Gypsy moth in 2007.  Monitoring and Understanding Forest/Atmosphere Carbon Dioxide Exchange: the NRS Flux Tower Network
Data from flux sites help test physiological models of C exchange and are critical to relating fluxes and remote sensing data. Companion physiological and ecological measurements enable partitioning carbon fluxes into plant and soil components and reveal mechanisms responsible for these fluxes. At some sites, biomass-based estimates of C storage have validated C budgets from direct flux data, and vice-versa. Data from the flux sites have been applied in ecology, weather forecasting, and climate studies, especially for sites with several years of data to quantify inter-annual flux variations.


image placeholderFuels and Fire Research in the New Jersey Pine Barrens
The 1.1-million-acre New Jersey Pine Barrens is 22% of the land area of New Jersey and the largest area of open land along the Atlantic Seaboard. It is characterized by highly volatile fuels. Historically, the fire-return cycle as 25 years and large 100,000+ acre fires were common prior to fire suppression practices. We are taking a multi-discipline approach to improve the fuel model in order to provide a more-accurate fire-danger rating system specific to the Barrens. There are also pine barrens ecosystems on Long Island, New York, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts.



Last Modified: 06/13/2013