Fire Science

March 2019

Through all of time, fire has shaped the landscape and, beginning with First Peoples, people have used fire to shape the landscape. In recent history, land managers have rediscovered that fire is a valuable tool in restoring once common species to forests. USDA Forest Service scientists are delivering information that helps land managers use fire safely and effectively through research into the effects of prescribed fire on factors such as tree canopy, soils and wildlife as well as fire behavior under varying weather conditions. This month we feature a scientist, research, a product and partnership demonstrating that when researchers and managers work hand-in-hand, great benefits can be derived for the health and sustainability of the Nation’s forests and grasslands.


Environmental Education Link

Logo for Fire Learning Trail podcast.

It’s almost like being there! The Fire Learning Trail is an enhanced interpretive trail with locations throughout the Appalachian Mountains. Even if you can’t physically visit the trail, there’s a podcast-style audio tour available through iTunes or Soundcloud (search “fire learning”), or download the episodes directly to your computer.

Featured Scientist

Jay Charney

Jay Charney is testing out SODAR equipment to collect windspeed and direction data during a planned prescribed fire this spring.

Being really good at math, having a father who was trained as a scientist, and sharing a last name with a famous meteorologist, Jule Charney (no relation), may have predestined Jay Charney to study physics and math and ultimately pursue a career in meteorology. Charney is a research meteorologist with the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, where he studies fire weather and smoke dispersion using numerical weather models. His work is paving the way toward developing new and better fire weather tools that can help firefighters anticipate how fires will move and grow.

Charney grew up in the Washington, D.C. area with easy access to world class museums, including the National Air and Space Museum. He attended Oxon Hill High School in the Science and Technology Program and upon graduation pursued an undergraduate degree in physics at Penn State University. He went on to earn a Master’s degree in Meteorology from the University of Maryland and a Ph.D. in Meteorology from Penn State.   

After completing his Ph.D., Charney worked for a year as a post-doc in Toulouse, France, using weather models to study flooding in the European Alps. During a 2-year post-doc appointment at North Carolina State University, he conducted research using weather models to study aircraft (flight) turbulence, hurricane landfall, and severe storms. In 2001, the National Fire Plan provided funding that enabled the USDA Forest Service to hire Charney to conduct research on fire weather and smoke dispersion using numerical modeling techniques. Eighteen years later, he still finds great joy in the research problems he gets to work on and the innovations required to work toward a greater understanding. 

“I think the research I do is important because there is a wealth of weather information collected and produced every day that is not used to inform operational fire management decisions,” said Charney. “I see my role as providing the management community with access to fire weather information that is not currently available to them, and assessing and working to update and improve existing fire weather tools,” he said. 

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Featured Product

Hot-Dry-Windy (HDW) Fire Weather Index

Jay Charney shares the website that delivers the HDW Index

Wildfires are a year round occurrence across the country, sometimes becoming a threat to life and property. Weather plays a key role in how a wildfire grows, how fast it spreads and how dangerous it becomes to firefighters. Researchers with the USDA Forest Service working with university partners recently developed a new tool, the “Hot-Dry-Windy (HDW) Index,” that uses three key factors affecting fire—temperature, moisture and wind--to predict days when weather conditions have the greatest chance of making wildfires erratic and especially dangerous.

“Predicting fire conditions is important and extremely difficult,” said Joseph (Jay) Charney, a research meteorologist with the Northern Research Station and a member of the research team behind the HDW Index. “By focusing on just temperature, moisture and wind we created a tool that works with the same weather models that are used every day in fire weather forecasts, and thus can be applied anywhere in the world, regardless of fuel conditions or topography.”

To test the accuracy of the HDW Index in predicting dangerous fire days, scientists compared its predictions to fire behavior measured in four wildfires that occurred in Minnesota, Texas, New Jersey and California. When compared to results obtained from a previously used index, the Haines Index, the HDW Index was a better predictor of the day during each fire when the fire was most difficult to manage.

To increase the usefulness of the HDW Index, researchers collaborated with Jessica McDonald of Texas Tech University to develop a 30-year HDW climatology that identifies locally and seasonally high HDW values for specific locations. The climatology provides context for the HDW Index and is especially valuable for fire managers who may not be from the local area.

Performance of the HDW Index to date is very promising, but more research is needed before the index can be used on an operational basis.


Listen to Jay Charney introduce the HDW Index

Right click to download MP3 file (5 mb)
Download transcript

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Featured Research

Characterizing effects of prescribed fire on forest canopy cover in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests

An example of canopy gap delineation, side A, using post-burn, leaf-on aerial imagery. On side B, those same gap boundaries are shown on the on preburn image.

Before European settlement, fire shaped many of the forests of the eastern United States. After settlement, lack of fire was just as powerful an influence in determining the makeup of tree and understory species in the eastern United States. As fire has disappeared from the landscape, shade-tolerant or fire-sensitive tree species such as red maple, sugar maple and blackgum have flourished. On dry sites where oak and pine trees once thrived, shade-intolerant trees such as yellow poplar and black birch have out-competed the slower growing oak trees when harvest or storms create openings in the forest canopy.

Like land managers across the nation, managers at the George Washington National Forest and Jefferson National Forest in Virginia saw prescribed fire as a means of restoring the species composition and structure of forests to resemble presettlement conditions. Between the late 1990s and 2014, managers conducted large-scale prescribed fire on more than 2 million acres of forest. Their question for Jean Lober, a conservation scientist with The Nature Conservancy in Virginia, and Research Forester Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy of the Northern Research Station’s lab in Parsons, W.Va., was “did it work?”

To answer that question, Thomas-VanGundy worked with Lober and colleagues to use remote sensing to evaluate the effects of repeated prescribed fire on 75 burn units (each unit included an average of about 743 acres) covering over 85,000 acres in George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.

“We found that prescribed burning did create two conditions that forest managers wanted to create, open forest and early forest. We also found that repeated fires do not necessarily create more open forest conditions. Creating these conditions may require different restoration techniques,” Thomas-Van Gundy said.

Thomas-Van Gundy’s work will help foresters on the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests refine their use of prescribed fire, and the collaboration will also advance forest restoration efforts throughout the region.  “This new landscape-scale dataset can inform monitoring and research on vegetation and wildlife in both early and open habitat areas created by prescribed fire,” she said. “This is a unique dataset for the eastern and oak pine forests and we expect that it will also be a source of information for other assessments and research into fire effects.”

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Featured Partnership

Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists (CAFMS)

Gathering of CAFMS members in 2016. Photo by Jen Bunty, Clemson University.

A century of suppressing fire in the eastern United States has altered the tree species found in forests stretching from Pennsylvania to Alabama as well as the wildlife found in those forests. Land managers in the Appalachia region who are working to reverse that change are increasingly finding that fire can be a valuable tool. Since 2010, a USDA Forest Service led collaboration called the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists (CAFMS) has served not only as a clearinghouse on fire research in the region, but CAFMS has delivered training and fostered communication between scientists and forestry practitioners.

Prescribed fire allows managers to control where, how many acres, and how hot a fire burns, and those factors are among many that influence forest regeneration. “Forest managers need specific information on the fire science that is relevant to their region, and if that information is going to be useful, it has to be accessible to managers,” said Todd Hutchinson, a research ecologist with the Northern Research Station and the principal investigator with CAFMS. A variety of activities and products are employed by CAFMS to deliver fire science, including a website, social media, newsletters, workshops, field tours, and research briefs and syntheses. The Consortium is led by Hutchinson and Helen Mohr, a forester with the Forest Service’s Southern Research Station and director of CAFMS.

Funded by the national Joint Fire Science Program, CAFMS is one of 15 regional fire science exchanges across the nation that are connecting land managers to research and the scientists doing the research. “One of our greatest accomplishments has been to help build a more cohesive ‘fire community’ in the Appalachians,” Mohr said.

The Consortium’s organizational structure has contributed to building community. While Hutchinson and Mohr co-lead the Consortium, a 9-person board that includes scientists and land managers guides CAFMS’ Program of Work based on the science delivery needs that they identify in their respective roles.

Beth Buchanan, a fire ecologist in the Forest Service's Southern Region, credits the Consortium with bringing scientists and managers together. “As a fire ecologist straddling the line between management and research worlds, I’ve always been frustrated by the lack of communication between the two groups,” Buchanan said. “To my relief, CAFMS is narrowing the gap to the extent that the forests ask Helen to speak at fire management meetings and firefighters casually refer to information produced or disseminated by CAFMS. ‘Us and them’ is finally going away.”

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Last updated: 03/21/2019