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Fire Research

June 2013

Many natural ecosystems across the nation are dependent on fire to remain viable.  But today most fires, by necessity, are quickly suppressed.  Over the years this has led to fuel buildups and more severe fires.  Increasing numbers of housing developments in the wildland urban interface have complicated matters even further.  Scientists at the Northern Research Station are attacking some thorny questions related to how we can live with fire for the benefit of ecosystems and society. .  Learn more.

Featured Scientist

Sarah McCaffrey

Research Forester, Sarah McCaffrey, surveys fire damage in Australia.

Dr. Sarah McCaffrey is the lead Social Scientist at the Northern Research Station addressing fire related issues and her research is national in scope.  Sarah’s studies focus on better understanding the social dynamics of fire management.  This work has included National Fire Plan and Joint Fire Science sponsored projects examining the social acceptability of prescribed fire and thinning on public lands and implementation of defensible space on private land.  More recently she has begun work on the social issues that occur during fires including community-agency interactions during fires, and what the U.S. can learn from Australia’s “Prepare, Stay-and-Defend-or-Leave Early” approach to working with populations threatened by a wildfire. 

Fire is a natural part of many ecosystems, especially in the western U.S, and in many cases is a required component for the health and sustainability of these ecosystems.  However, more than 50 years of fire suppression and the growing number of houses being built in high fire risk areas have complicated matters greatly.  Years of fire suppression have led to a buildup of fuels that contributes to more catastrophic wildfires.  Increasing numbers of housing developments located in the wildland urban interface have made wildfires more costly in terms of property damage, more dangerous in terms of potential loss of life, and much more complicated with respect to fire fighting.  Today, wildfire management is as much about people as it is about vegetation or fire. 

As more people move into high fire hazard areas, their active involvement will be central to successful efforts to create fire adapted communities that, by pro-actively mitigating their fire risk, allow for restoring fire to fire dependent ecosystems.  No matter how ecologically sound and well planned a fuels treatment is, its ultimate implementation is dependent on public acceptance.  Sarah’s research is helping us get a clearer and more accurate picture of public views about fire and fuels management.  This information will in turn help ensure that managers’ efforts to communicate and work with the public before, during, and after a wildfire are as effective and efficient as possible. 

Find out more on Sarah's scientist profile

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Map of estimated fire frequency for the historic period 1650-1850.Modeling Fire in the Continental U.S. – Many natural ecosystems across the nation are dependent on disturbance by fire.  The historic amount and distribution of prairies, savannas, woodlands and forests were determined, in large part, by the fire regime.  Changes in fire regime over the years due to fire suppression, development, and other factors have led to declines in some of these ecosystems.  Restoring fire dependent ecosystems requires knowledge of historic fire frequency to guide restoration efforts by land managers.  However, information on historic fire frequency is often missing or cannot be determined locally due to lack of fire scars on trees and shrubs. 

Northern Research Station scientists in collaboration with university partners have developed a new model called PC2FM that estimates historic fire frequency for the continental United States. The model uses climate variables of mean maximum temperature and precipitation to estimate fire frequency from a national database of sites that record the history of fire over the past 350 years. Having science-based estimates of historic fire frequencies for specific project areas is a major advancement in ecosystem restoration.  Another important use of the model is in assessing potential changes in climate (temperature and moisture) on the likelihood of wildland fires. The PC2FM model can be used to map large-scale historic fire frequency and assess climate impact on landscape-scale fire regimes. 


Featured Research

Site affected by high fire severity in both the overstory and understory.  Orange color is characteristic of soils heated to high temperatures, and indicates a long burn period as the fire burned through the base of this spruce tree.The Pagami Creek Fire - Large-scale natural disturbances, such as large wildfires, have critical implications for both short-term and long-term ecosystem dynamics.  They can significantly change forest species composition and structure, soil and soil nutrient retention, and biogeochemical cycling at a landscape scale. These effects can persist for many decades.  Fire severity measures are excellent indicators of the short and long term impacts the fire has on vegetation and soil, however they are typically ephemeral.  

The Pagami Creek Fire was started by lightning in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), about 14 miles east of Ely, Minnesota on August 18, 2011.  It grew to be the largest fire in the BWCAW since 1894 and burned over 93,900 acres (38,000 hectares).  Northern Research Station scientists and their university collaborators accessed the fire area immediately after the event to quantify fire severity and link it with remotely-sensed imagery.

What makes the Pagami Creek Fire a truly exceptional research opportunity is the highly detailed spatial data on pre-fire forest composition, structure, and disturbance history, including unique data such as NASA hyper spectral imagery, forest plot and biogeochemical cycling data, and spruce budworm disturbance assessments.  This set of pre-fire data has been assembled by our research team over the past decade through a series of remote sensing and disturbance ecology research projects within the region. 

This large and severe fire provided a unique opportunity to develop a better understanding of the interactions between pre-disturbance forest conditions, fire severity, and resulting effects on soil carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and mercury (Hg) pools.  The information from this research is particularly important to help inform management approaches and policies that consider the use of fire as a forest management tool.


Featured Partnership

Fire on Silas Little Experimental Forest

Silas Little Experimental Forest Service - Fire research - Wildfire risk is real in the Pinelands National Reserve, a 1.1-million acre reserve in Southern New Jersey that is dotted with villages and ringed by major metropolitan areas, including Philadelphia, PA, Atlantic City, NJ, and Trenton, NJ.  Much of the landscape is dominated by highly flammable forests consisting of Pitch pine and dense understory shrubs and oaks, and forests continue to be flammable despite repeated wildfires and/or fuel reduction treatments. Proximity to an extensive wildland urban interface and key transportation corridors surrounding the Pinelands make suppression activities complicated.  Accurate, real-time fire weather data, detailed maps of forest fuels, and fuel moisture information are vital to human health, homes, and infrastructure in the region. 

Northern Research Station scientists, in collaboration with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, the Forest Service’s Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry, a host of nearby universities, and other federal and state agencies, are working to provide State and Federal fire and forest managers with better tools for predicting fire danger, fire risk, impacts to air quality, and ecosystem functioning under changing environmental conditions.

To date, benefits resulting from the fire research partnerships at the Silas Little Experimental Forest in New Lisbon, New Jersey include:  

  • Improved monitoring and delivery of fire weather and fire danger information for State and Federal wildland fire managers in the Pinelands,  
  • Validation of predictive models for fire danger, fire behavior, and smoke emissions to assist wildland fire managers,
  • Generation of a sampling framework to produce accurate measurements and maps of canopy fuel loading in the Pinelands, and  
  • A better understanding of the tradeoffs between hazardous fuel reduction treatments, wildfire risk, carbon sequestration, and water resources in forest ecosystems.