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Wildfire Mitigation

May 2016

At a time when wildfires are getting bigger and more intense and firefighting is getting more complex due to population growth in the wildland-urban interface, researchers are focusing attention on better understanding factors such as fire weather, wildfire behavior, smoke dispersion, and community preparedness for wildfire.  This month we feature a scientist, a product, research and a partnership that help us to live with fire by mitigating its impacts. 

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Featured Scientist

Ken Clark

Ken Clark on flux tower.

It is fortunate that Ken Clark is not afraid of heights; his career ladder has turned out to involve actual “ladders in the forest” and much more climbing than he ever expected.

A research forester stationed at the Silas Little Experimental Forest in New Jersey, Clark is part of a team of scientists using a sophisticated network of towers to monitor fire weather, the dynamics of wildland fires, and fluxes of carbon dioxide and water vapor. Clark climbs 60 feet above the forest floor to calibrate and repair instruments on a number of towers throughout the experimental forest and the Pinelands National Reserve.  Data gathered above the forest canopy are helping the region’s wildland fire managers be prepared for fire, as well as helping scientists better understand processes leading to ember transport, smoke emissions, and the forests’ role in storing carbon.  

“It is a little like being a telephone line repairman,” Clark said. “If anyone had told me that I would spend much of my career hanging from towers and working with high-tech meteorological equipment, I would not have believed them.”

A native of New Jersey, Clark grew up in a family that sought out natural areas and spent time outdoors. Hikes with his naturalist grandfather in North Carolina contributed to his interest in plants, but when he began college as a botany major in Northern California, Clark’s ambition did not include working for the USDA Forest Service. A job inventorying plants in old-growth Douglas fir forests in Oregon and California led him to pursue a doctorate in forest ecology in Costa Rica, and it was there that he began studying carbon flux (the flow of carbon through trees and animals as well as non-living matter) in forests. Clark’s current work includes quantifying and modeling factors driving fire danger and fire behavior in the Pine Barrens as well as quantifying the impacts of invasive insects, especially gypsy moth and southern pine beetle, on forest structure and carbon and nutrient cycles in the Pinelands. 

One of the benefits of working at an experimental forest, particularly one surrounded by universities engaged in ecological research, is conversation and collaboration with visiting scientists. “You think you’re just in the middle of the woods in New Jersey and it’s going to be pretty rural, but it is actually very international,” Clark said.

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Featured Product

Fire Weather and Smoke Prediction

EAMC.

Wildfires and prescribed fires used in fuel reduction efforts are burning issues for researchers, land managers and air quality managers.  With increases in fire size and intensity over the past few decades and the frequent use of prescribed fires for fuels management, there is a need for tools that can be used to predict fire weather, fire behavior and smoke dispersion.  Forest Service research meteorologists are addressing these needs through research on a number of fronts.

Meteorologists study the atmospheric conditions at ground level and up in the air that affect wildland fire danger and behavior such as atmospheric winds, temperatures and moisture.  Based on these studies they have developed an atmospheric turbulence-based fire-weather index that helps in anticipating when weather conditions could lead to erratic fire behavior and can be used for inclusion in operational fire weather forecasts.  Today, fire managers are provided 24-48 hour predictions of this index each day through the Fire Consortia for Advanced Modeling of Meteorology and Smoke (FCAMMS) - Eastern Area Modeling Consortium (EAMC) web site.   

Smoke is another aspect of fire investigated by meteorologists.  Smoke generated by wildland fires can affect local and regional air quality, creating multiple risks for fire fighters and nearby residents.   For low intensity prescribed fires, planning and tactical management to reduce smoke impacts can be enhanced with models and decision support tools.  Forest Service research meteorologists and researchers at Michigan State University have collaboratively developed a coupled meteorological and air-quality modeling system for predicting the local meteorological and air quality effects of low intensity fires in forested environments.  They are now evaluating the system as a potential operational tool for fire and smoke management. 

“This research is important because it increases our understanding of how the atmosphere interacts with forest and rangeland ecosystems and how atmospheric processes impact fire and smoke- plume behavior,” said Warren Heilman, a research meteorologist with the Northern Research Station in Lansing, Mich. “This lays the foundation for the development of new predictive tools to anticipate when and where atmospheric conditions may be conducive to extreme fire behavior and when and where air quality may be adversely impacted by smoke from wildland fires.”   

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Featured Research

Community Preparedness

Pine needle filled bags at curb in from of home.The area of the United States designated as wildland-urban interface (WUI), where structures and other human development meet or intermingle, has increased significantly over the past several decades.  This presents a challenge for wildfire management as wildfires in these areas have the potential to impact people as well as ecosystems.   Research on community preparedness for wildfires was relatively scant prior to 2000.  Now a growing body of literature, based on studies conducted in fire prone areas across the country, is helping inform researchers and managers about the communities in the WUI, the factors that affect the public’s ability and willingness to prepare their communities for fire, and the characteristics of communities that have successful preparedness plans.

Research has shown that people who live within the WUI have a good understanding of fire’s ecological role and that acceptance of practices to reduce fuel loads such as prescribed burning and thinning is quite high.  Studies also show that most individuals living in fire prone areas recognize the level of risk.  However, recognition of risk alone does not lead to action.  A complex array of variables determine whether this knowledge translates into actions to mitigate fire risk.  Factors that come into play in community preparedness include homeowners’ perceptions of risk, understanding of a mitigation practice, and social interactions among community members and with fire officials. 

Studies on risk perception related to wildfire highlight the complexities of understanding human behavior when it comes to mitigating fire risk.  “It takes more than higher risk perception to motivate people to engage in wildfire mitigation practices such as clearing the vegetation from around their homes,” said Sarah McCaffrey, a research forester with the Station in Evanston, Ill. “In addition to perceiving risk, other factors that influence preparedness include whether homeowners perceive mitigation measures as being effective and how they assess the various cost and benefits of an action.”

Through research we have learned what factors are particularly important in contributing to communities being successful in encouraging homeowners to adopt and maintain mitigation activities.  In these communities approaches were all tailored to meet specific, local community needs.  Capacity building, fostering social networks, taking local context into account, and external resources, such as obtaining grant money to assist in vegetation removal efforts, were all important in successful preparedness efforts.  Another common factor among these communities was the involvement of a central group or individual that provided leadership by initiating and championing mitigation efforts. 

A number of questions remain to be explored by research on community preparedness.  Among them is “How do we improve transfer of the many useful findings of social science research to practitioners?” said McCaffrey, a leader in research in this area.

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Featured Partnership

North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange

Group photo of North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange members.

If you associate the word “wildfire” with western states, you are not alone. Today wildfire is less frequent and less dramatic in the East, but historically it was integral to the forest ecosystems. In the nation’s most densely forested and most heavily populated corner, a partnership called the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange is working to connect scientists, natural resource managers, and communities with research that can contribute to balancing public safety, economic realities and sustainable ecosystems.

Established in 2013, the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange is a partnership among the USDA Forest Service, the Forest Stewards Guild, and the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact. It is one of the 15 regional fire science exchanges sponsored by the Joint Fire Science Program.

“Our region is unique in that we have highly populated areas alongside high risk, fire-adapted ecosystems; so our focus is on the high amount of wildland-urban interface we contain,” said Inga La Puma, Science Communications Director for the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange. “Our efforts to increase communication between scientists and managers demonstrate this uniqueness, with such foci as prescribed fire, smoke management, and the social science of wildland fire.”

In the past 3 years, researchers affiliated with the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange have worked with land managers to identify research needs and communicate those needs to scientists. The result has been an increase in the amount of fire science research being conducted in the region as well as an increase in information sharing, according to Nick Skowronski, a research forester with the Northern Research Station and a Northern Research Station co-lead of the Exchange along with Erin Lane, a natural resource specialist. “We’ve become an outlet for applied fire science and we’ve served as a hub for the exchange of information about fire.”

The partnership supports a passionate fire science and management community through engaging newsletters and research briefs, timely webinars, and field trips and workshops that catalyze collaboration across agencies, organizations, and businesses, according to Amanda Mahaffey, Northeast Region Director of the Forest Stewards Guild. "The North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange demonstrates the way fire science communication should work in our region,” Mahaffey said. “The Fire Science Exchange serves a burgeoning need in our region through activities that build excitement for fire science in action."

Lane, who was instrumental in founding the Exchange, sees partnership as being essential to reaching everyone concerned with fire management and planning in the East. “Because of our complex landscape, we take a broad and inclusive approach to catalyze interactions and facilitate communications,” Lane said.

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