Mitigate Wildfire Risk

May 2017

Periodic fire is instrumental in the health of some forest ecosystems. Deprived of fire, they are subject to invasion by native and non-native plants and, over time, they become susceptible to larger, more intense wildfire.

Land managers use prescribed fire to restore fire-dependent ecosystems and reduce the possibility of wildfire. Northern Research Station scientists are exploring many aspects of prescribed fire, including the impacts of smoke, with the goal of developing tools that will ensure that land managers can achieve ecosystem health without affecting human health. This month, we feature a scientist, research, a product and a partnership that showcase how scientists and managers are working together to mitigate wildfire risks.

Environmental Education Link

thumbnail image of cover of Natural Inquirer - Science education journal for middle and high school students.Forest Service Research on wildland and prescribed fires is broad, including work on fire history and the effects of fire on everything from soils, to plants and animals, to human communities. Some of our work is showcased in Wildland Fire 2, a Natural Inquirer science journal edition for middle and high school students.

Featured Scientist

Warren Heilman

Warren HeilmanWarren Heilman’s research extends well above the forest canopy. A research meteorologist with the Northern Research Station’s climate, fire and carbon cycle science work unit, Heilman explores how wildland fires and atmospheric conditions influence and interact with each other.

A native of South Dakota, Heilman thinks growing up in his home state influenced his interest in atmospheric science. “It’s just wide open spaces out there,” he said. “It’s easy to observe weather in South Dakota. I spent a lot of time watching thunderstorms, so that’s kind of where I got my interest in meteorology.”

Together with the Climate, Fire, and Carbon Cycles team, Heilman uses computer models and field experiments to simulate and observe the two-way interactions between fire and the atmosphere. “Studying wildland fires is not easy,” he said. “It’s really hard to get up close to them and actually measure what’s going on right next to these fires.”

Instead of trying to get close to wildfires, many researchers focus their work on prescribed fires. The lower-intensity nature of managed fires, as well as the knowledge of where they will be confined to, makes it easier for scientists to set up monitoring programs and networks.

“We’ll get permission from fire managers to go in and set up instrumentation well beforehand, and then on the day of the planned fire, we start measuring the atmospheric conditions and air quality conditions that occur,” Heilman said. “After the fire is over, then we’ll sit down and spend lots of time analyzing data. That’s the fun part.”

Heilman and his research work unit develop science that is used to create and improve predictive tools to help fire managers anticipate when fire behavior may become erratic or extreme. Through the Northern Research Station’s Eastern Area Modeling Consortium (EAMC), Heilman and his team evaluate many of those tools via 24- to 48-hour predictions of fire weather for the United States. A user-friendly online report of those predictions is made available to fire managers and other users, allowing them to view maps of temperature, wind, and other atmospheric variables important for wildland fires.

From a smoke standpoint, the researchers’ modeling proves important particularly for prescribed fires, which are often carried out near urban or wildland-urban interface areas.

“If you know beforehand that a planned prescribed fire is going to result in a smoke plume that drifts over a residential area or an urban area and it’s going to smoke out this community, maybe it’s not a good idea to light that fire on that particular day because the meteorological conditions aren’t appropriate,” Heilman said.

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Featured Product

Landscape-fire relationships inferred from bearing trees in Minnesota

Map of landtype associations and pyrophyllic percentages in northern Minnesota.Historical land data converges with natural history in research that aims to help forest managers determine where prescribed fire will advance landscape restoration in Minnesota.

More than a century ago, land surveyors conducting the first Public Land Survey used the distance between trees and corners as a way to relocate property lines. They carefully recorded the species and size of these “bearing trees;” today their notes are being used in ecological research. Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy, a research forester in the Northern Research Station’s lab in Parsons, West Virginia, and her co-author, Gregory Nowacki, regional ecologist for the National Forest System’s Eastern Region, harnessed the power of bearing trees as indicators of past fires on Minnesota’s landscape. Their study area spans two forest-dominated provinces in eastern Minnesota, with greatest focus on ecological units that encompass the Chippewa and Superior National Forests.

The research was published in 2016 in a general technical report titled “Landscape-fire relationships inferred from bearing trees in Minnesota.

Thomas-Van Gundy has a long history with ecological research via land records. In West Virginia, she used witness trees cited in colonial-era land surveys to help establish how forests might have looked before European settlement. In Midwestern states like Minnesota, the rectangular system for land surveys used in the Public Land Survey between 1847 and 1908 provided even richer insight into the region’s ecological past.

“In the Public Land Survey, there is a systematic recording of bearing or witness trees to document corners, and they include wonderful details such as species/genera identity, diameter, and distance and direction to the survey corner,” Thomas-Van Gundy said. “The grid system really resulted in a fortuitous collection of ecological data.”

Documenting past environmental conditions is steadily gaining momentum in science and land management. Information on pre-settlement conditions, especially vegetation composition and structure and prevailing disturbance processes, can give land managers today insight into forest conditions before European settlement. Insight into pre-settlement conditions can also help clarify the extent of historical land-use impacts, and aids researchers in understanding how a region’s climate has changed and may change in the future.

In Minnesota, species and genera of trees used as bearing trees in Public Land Surveys were categorized as either pyrophilic (trees that are adapted to fire) or pyrophobic (trees that do not tolerate fire) and the percentage of pyrophilic trees was calculated and interpolated to create a map showing where it is reasonable to infer that fire played a role in shaping the forest.

The result is a series of maps that illustrate where prescribed burning for ecosystem restoration is most appropriate today.

“Our research is mapping where fire left an indelible mark on plant composition over the past several centuries,” Thomas-Van Gundy said. “This research gives land managers in Minnesota sound science to back prescribed burning as an important tool in ecosystem restoration.”

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Featured Research

BlueSky smoke modeling framework

Map showing model of smoke plume near Duluth, Minnesota.On the ground, fire roars through a forest in a blaze of orange and smoke. Above the flames, smoke that is a mixture of gases and particulate matter (a combination of dust, pollen, soot and liquid) bursts into the atmosphere. Because it can be a health issue as well as a safety issue, smoke is a local, regional, and often international concern. Forest Service scientists are working to understand how and where smoke travels, information that is key to human health and safety. USDA Forest Service fire weather meteorologists are exploring the meteorological conditions that affects the initiation and evolution of wildfire.

“Our work essentially aims to determine how can we better understand and predict what’s going to happen with smoke in particular circumstances,“  said Jay Charney, a research meteorologist with the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Lansing, Michigan. Charney’s research explores how meteorological conditions influence fire behavior and smoke dispersion with the goal of developing tools that fire weather meteorologists, fire managers, and smoke managers can use to prevent illness and respiratory distress and to save lives and property.

Predicting smoke dispersion is a complex process that requires a variety of inter-dependent data-sets and numerical models to assess fuel loading, fuel consumption, fire emissions, and meteorological conditions. Used for a number of regional and national smoke and air quality prediction applications, the BlueSky Smoke Modeling Framework is a smoke dispersion prediction system that links together a variety of state-of-the-art models that simulate meteorology, fuel conditions, fuel consumption, emissions, and the effect of emissions on air quality. Developed by Forest Service scientists in the 1990s, the BlueSky Framework is ground-breaking in that it enables users to apply local meteorology models to their fires based on their regional location. Charney is currently using the BlueSky Framework in conjunction with land managers in states that border the Great Lakes from Minnesota to Pennsylvania.

“With every lakeshore boundary you can get different local wind characteristics, and smoke can go somewhere different. Areas with lakes pose a big challenge, and the Great Lakes Region can be particularly difficult,” Charney said.

Research on the BlueSky modeling framework is ongoing. “We are always looking for additional users, particularly people who are interested in experimenting and want to test our model on their fires,” Charney said.

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Featured Partnership

Moquah Management Area Restoration – Partnership with Michigan State University and the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest

Controlled burn designed to enhance pine barrens (i.e., savannah and grassland systems with scattered pine) in the Washburn Ranger District of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.  Photo by Brian Sturtevant. Working together on the Moquah Management Area of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Northwestern Wisconsin, scientists from the Northern Research Station and Michigan State University (MSU) along with managers on the national forest are clearly demonstrating the value of partnerships. 

Forest managers are using prescribed fire, tree harvest, brush control and fuel reduction treatments on the Moquah Management Area in an effort to restore the globally imperiled pine barrens.  The fire-dependent pine barrens are declining worldwide due to fire suppression. Researchers are leveraging the extensive prescribed burning activities on the Moquah to investigate soil heating during fire and its effects on hardwood regeneration, availability and viability of the seed bank and availability of nutrients affecting soil fertility.  Results of the research will help determine which factors affect the restoration success of pine barrens ecosystems following fire. 

Supported by a multi-year grant from the Joint Fire Science Program, each of the partners has specific roles that make the project work. The principle investigator, research ecologist Brian Sturtevant, is responsible for project administration, budget and role delegation, with specific expertise in fuels and fire severity assessment.  Other primary science themes include the physics of soil heating (Matt Dickinson, an ecologist with the Northern Research Station), and the effects on soil properties (Jessica Miesel of MSU and Randy Kolka, a research soil scientist with the Northern Research Station), soil microbial communities (Kathleen Quigley of MSU), vegetation and seedbank response (Christel Kern, a research forester with the Northern Research Station), and implications for wildlife habitat (Deahn Donner, a project leader and landscape ecologist with the Northern Research Station). Research leads ensure scientific rigor, develop field protocols and collaborate on timing and staffing requirements.  A formal liaison from the National Forest assists the principle investigator in coordinating research activities with national forest burn operations staff. 

“The research staff simply does not have the capacity to carry off controlled burns of the scale (thousands of acres) that the National Forests can do,” said Sturtevant.  “National Forests do not have the capacity to fully monitor and instrument burns to quantify cause and effects of burns as research can do.”

“Together we can contribute to both basic and applied science underlying use of controlled burns for restoration purposes,” Sturtevant said.

Last modified: 05/11/2017