Fire Science for Healthier Communities & Forests
Fire is a natural part of many ecosystems across the country, but living with that reality is complicated. Fire improves forest health by clearing understory vegetation to allow for new growth, stimulating seed germination and returning nutrients to the soil. Drought, climate change and fire suppression have all contributed to more fuel on the forest floor and more intense fires. In February, the Northern Research Station web feature includes a scientist, research and a partnership focused on research that managers can use to make forests and communities safer, healthier and more resilient.
Meteorologist Xindi Bian, is part of the Northern Research Station’s cadre of scientists working on fire related issues. His research is focused on better understanding the effects of fire on atmospheric turbulence and smoke dispersion. Results of his work are used in development of predictive models that serve as tools in fighting fires and predicting smoke impact on air quality.
Bian stumbled into the field of meteorology a bit by chance. His childhood interest in space shuttles and satellites led him to select a major of atmospheric physics in his college application. He soon discovered that atmospheric physics was part of the meteorology department and not space science. “I was disappointed at first as switching majors was not allowed at that time (the late 1970s),” Bian said. “Now I am very glad that I became a meteorologist, because it is such a fascinating field with important implications for many areas of our lives.”
Bian started his career with the USDA Forest Service in 2002, after working as a research scientist in the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for nearly a decade. The first fire meteorology project he worked on, FireFlux, was a large prescribed grass fire experiment conducted near Galveston, TX.
Currently, Bian is analyzing high frequency data collected by his colleagues in the Northern Research Station during a dozen small plot burns and one management-scale burn in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. “We are trying to understand and explain observations made during the fire to quantify fire-induced disturbances and improve turbulence parameterizations in numerical models,” said Bian. “This work, funded by the Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP), is important as it lays the foundation upon which better models for fire behavior and smoke dispersion can be developed.”
Bian is the proud father of two grown daughters, one a physician and the other an engineer. “I tried but failed to persuade them to become meteorologists,” said Bian. “But they are both amateur meteorologists and our conversation always centers around weather and climate during family reunions.”
More information about Xindi Bian >>
Wildfire recovery as a "hot moment" for creating fire-adapted communities
As more land is converted from a natural to a built environment, and as climate change continues, events such as wildfire, flooding and drought will have a more profound effect on people and the landscape. Understanding how and when communities can adapt to conditions and become resilient is becoming a vital question in the United States and throughout the world.
“Natural disasters are escalating, and the standard for responding to these disasters is evolving,” according to Miranda Mockrin, a research social scientist with the Northern Research Station in Baltimore, MD. “For a long time, recovery from a natural disaster has been about ‘getting back to normal.’ Within the community of natural hazards professionals, there is more appreciation for an approach that leverages decisions made during recovery to meaningfully reduce vulnerability, and adapt to hazards.”
For wildfires, researchers are only now trying to understand what communities are doing to recover from disaster and how that might change future vulnerability. For example, is post-fire the “hot moment” when there is an opportunity to create a more fire-resilient community? In a study that sought to understand this phenomenon, Mockrin and her colleagues developed a model of community recovery and adaptation after disaster that integrates reducing vulnerability to hazards with recovery from a disaster. “The two primary strengths of this approach are that it is applicable to community recovery after any disaster, not just wildfire, and it acknowledges that an area’s future vulnerability to a given threat is rooted in social recovery from a past disaster as well as ecological recovery,” Mockrin said.
The study’s lead author is Ronald L. Schumann III of the University of North Texas. Co-authors include Cassandra Johnson Gaither of the Forest Service’s Southern Research Station and colleagues from universities and private industry.
More information on Wildfire recovery as a "hot moment" for creating fire-adapted communities >>
Research Informs Prescribed Burning on Monongahela National Forest
Across the Appalachians, research is showing that fire can be an essential tool for restoring mixed oak forests. Collaboration between Northern Research Station scientists and Monongahela National Forest land managers is helping the forest build local knowledge to expand use of prescribed fire in West Virginia.
“Until 2018 ..., it was illegal for private property owners to use prescribed fire in West Virginia” notes John Fry, assistant fire manager officer on the Monongahela National Forest. The National Forest was using fire, but it was primarily for wildlife habitat restoration, and limited to 30- to 40-acre blocks. Fifteen years ago, the Monongahela National Forest was burning an average of 106 acres per year. Today, the Forest is proposing to implement 4,000 to 6000 acres annually for oak regeneration, wildlife habitat improvement and hazardous fuels reduction.
Enter Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy, a research forester with the Northern Research Station, located in Parsons, WV. Since 2007, Thomas-Van Gundy and others have worked on refining fire regime maps for the Forest that help managers identify forest stands that need fire or fire “surrogates,” such as removing dense vegetation, for restoration. Those maps give Fry the perspective he needs to see where there might be opportunities to use prescribed fire across a larger landscape without diminishing timber quality. “One of the first things I look at is Melissa’s map, and if it shows an area has a history of fire, I can bring this information forward in the project planning process,” said Fry.
Sharing the science is a significant part of the collaboration. Last summer, Thomas-Van Gundy gave a presentation on her work on fire regimes for District Rangers and other staff at the request of the forest. She’s also working with the forest fire management officers to help prioritize areas for burning. With Jan Wiedenbeck, a research forest products technologist and project leader in Princeton, WV, Thomas-Van Gundy provided a demonstration of the effects of prescribed burns on timber quality from three areas on the forest in 2019. Staff at the Monongahela National Forest, working with the scientists, are hoping to replicate that demonstration in the spring of 2020, inviting the private timber industry to be part of a demonstration.
“Fire issues are defining my career,” said Thomas-Van Gundy. “Collaborating with the Monongahela National Forest on fire research has helped advance the use of the research, and just as importantly it has given me insight into land managers’ questions about fire, which is something that I can incorporate into future research.”
More Information on Mapping fire regimes from data you may already have: assessing LANDFIRE fire regime maps using local products >>
View photos from the timber quality demonstration on the Monongahela National Forest >>