After a more than a century of fighting to keep fire out of forests, reintroducing it is now an important management goal. Yet changes over the past century have left prescribed burning with a big job to do. Development, wildfire suppression, rising global temperatures, extended droughts, exotic species invasions, and longer fire seasons add complexity to using this practice.
Managers must consider how often, how intensely, and what time of year to burn; for insights they often look to how and when fires burned historically. However, attempting to mimic historical wildfires that burned in hot, dry conditions is risky. Burning in fall or spring when temperature and humidity are low reduces the risk of prescribed fires becoming uncontrollable, but does it have the intended effects? How do forest ecosystems that historically were adapted to fire respond when fire is reintroduced after so much time without it?
Forest Service researchers Becky Kerns and Michelle Day conducted a long-term experiment in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon, to assess how season and time between prescribed burns affect understory plant communities in ponderosa pine forests. They found that some native plants persisted and recovered from fire but didn’t respond vigorously, while invasive species tended to spread. These findings may help forest managers design more effective prescribed-fire treatments and avoid unintended consequences.
Wildland fires have a multitude of ecological effects in forests, woodlands, and savannas across the globe. A major focus of past research has been on tree mortality from fire, as trees provide a vast range of biological services. We assembled a database of individual-tree records from prescribed fires and wildfires in the United States. The Fire and Tree Mortality (FTM) database includes records from 164,293 individual trees with records of fire injury (crown scorch, bole char, etc.), tree diameter, and either mortality or top-kill up to ten years post-fire. Data span 142 species and 62 genera, from 409 fires occurring from 1981-2016. Additional variables such as insect attack are included when available. The FTM database can be used to evaluate individual fire-caused mortality models for pre-fire planning and post-fire decision support, to develop improved models, and to explore general patterns of individual fire-induced tree death. The database can also be used to identify knowledge gaps that could be addressed in future research.
Wildland fire is an important disturbance agent in forests of the American Northwest. Historical fire suppression efforts have contributed to an accumulation of fuels in many Northwestern forests and may result in more frequent and/or more severe wildfire events. Here we investigate the extent to which atmospheric and climatic variability may contribute to variability in annual area burned on 20 National Forests in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Empirical orthogonal function (EOF) analysis was used to identify coherent patterns in area burned by wildfire in the Pacific Northwest. Anomaly fields of 500-hPa height were regressed onto the resulting principal-component time series to identify the patterns in atmospheric circulation that are associated with variability in area burned by wildfire. Additionally, cross-correlation functions were calculated for the Palmer drought severity index (PDSI) over the year preceding the wildfire season. Parallel analyses based on superposed epoch analysis focused only on the extreme fire years (both large and small) to discriminate the controls on extreme years from the linear responses identified in the regression analyses. Four distinct patterns in area burned were identified, each associated with distinct climatic processes. Extreme wildfire years are forced at least in part by antecedent drought and summertime blocking in the 500-hPa height field. However the response to these forcings is modulated by the ecology of the dominant forest. In more mesic forest types antecedent drought is a necessary precondition for forests to burn, but it is not a good predictor of area burned due to the rarity of subsequent ignition. At especially dry locations, summertime blocking events can lead to increases in area burned even in the absence of antecedent drought. At particularly xeric locations summertime cyclones can also lead to increased area burned, probably due to dry lightning storms that bring ignition and strong winds but little precipitation. These results suggest that fuels treatments alone may not be effective at reducing area burned under extreme climatic conditions and furthermore that anthropogenic climate change may have important implications for forest management.
Wildfires in southwestern US ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Lawson & C. Lawson) forests have recently increased in size and severity, leaving large, contiguous patches of tree mortality, and raising concerns about post-fire recovery. Ponderosa pines are a dominant species in the Southwest and they evolved with low- to moderate-severity fire regimes. They are poorly adapted to regenerate after large, high-severity fires because they do not have serotinous cones, re-sprouting capabilities, or long-lived seed banks. Additionally, high-severity fires can favor competing understory plants or induce long-term changes to soil nutrient dynamics and surface fuel loads, potentially altering ponderosa pine regeneration niches. Furthermore, high-severity wildfires and the loss of ponderosa pines may alter fungal community composition, including pine-symbiotic ectomycorrhizal (EM) fungi and saprotrophic fungi, which are important for forest recovery and productivity. My research objectives were to understand the effects of fire severity > 10 years post-fire on: (1) the spatial patterns, and interactions of regenerating ponderosa pine and sprouting tree species, (2) ponderosa pine regeneration niches and seedling growth, and (3) fungal sporocarp and root tip EM community composition and colonization. My study sites for the first objective included large, 4-ha plots located in two types of high-severity (100% tree mortality) burn, either adjacent to residual live forest edges (edge plots) or > 200 m from any residual live trees (interior plots) in two Arizona wildfires, the 2000 Pumpkin and 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fires.
Piling and burning is widely used to dispose of unmerchantable debris resulting from thinning in forests throughout the western United States. Quite often more piles are created than are burned in a given year, however, causing piles to persist, accumulate, and age on the landscape. The effects of burning piles of increasing age has not been studied. We examined the effects of time since construction (i.e., pile age, in roughly six month increments for two years) and burn season (fall and spring) on fuelbed properties, combustion dynamics, fuel consumption, and charcoal formation for hand-constructed piles in thinned ponderosa pine-dominated sites in New Mexico (n = 50 piles) and Washington (n = 49 piles). Piles compacted over time similarly for both study sites, losing approximately 15% of their height annually for the first two years following piling. Peak flame height decreased and the duration of flaming combustion increased with increasing pile age for both burn seasons in New Mexico, yet depended on burn season in Washington. Increasing fuel moisture and compaction reduced peak flame height and increased flaming duration modestly for both sites. Peak flame height was reduced 6–7 cm and flaming duration increased 0.9–2.3 min for every percentage increase in small fuel moisture. Similarly, peak flame height was reduced 4–5 cm and flaming duration increased 0.6–0.8 min for every percentage reduction in pile height. Fuel consumption was high, averaging 90% in New Mexico and 95% in Washington. Fuel consumption patterns differed between locations, however; fuel consumption decreased with age and was slightly higher for spring than fall burns in New Mexico, whereas, neither pile age nor burn season affected fuel consumption in Washington. Charcoal formation as a fraction of pre-burn pile weight averaged 2.8% in New Mexico and 1.2% in Washington, and was not affected by pile age or burn season. Fuel consumption and charcoal production were unaffected by fuel moisture or compaction levels at either site. Findings from this study will inform fuel and fire managers about the potential effects on fire behavior, fuel consumption, and charcoal formation of burning piles of different age in different seasons under different environmental conditions.
The Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE) is designed to collect integrated observations from large wildland fires and provide evaluation datasets for new models and operational systems. Wildland fire, smoke dispersion, and atmospheric chemistry models have become more sophisticated, and next-generation operational models will require evaluation datasets that are coordinated and comprehensive for their evaluation and advancement. Integrated measurements are required, including ground-based observations of fuels and fire behavior, estimates of fire-emitted heat and emissions fluxes, and observations of near-source micrometeorology, plume properties, smoke dispersion, and atmospheric chemistry. To address these requirements the FASMEE campaign design includes a study plan to guide the suite of required measurements in forested sites representative of many prescribed burning programs in the southeastern United States and increasingly common high-intensity fires in the western United States. Here we provide an overview of the proposed experiment and recommendations for key measurements. The FASMEE study provides a template for additional large-scale experimental campaigns to advance fire science and operational fire and smoke models.
We integrated a widely used forest growth and management model, the Forest Vegetation Simulator, with the FSim large wildfire simulator to study how management policies affected future wildfire over 50 years on a 1.3 million ha study area comprised of a US national forest and adjacent lands. The model leverages decades of research and development on the respective forest growth and wildfire simulation models, and their integration creates a strategic forest landscape model that has a high degree of transparency in the existing user communities. The study area has been targeted for forest restoration investments in response to wildland fires that are increasingly impacting ecological conditions, conservation areas, amenity values, and surrounding communities. We simulated three alternative spatial investment priorities and three levels of management intensity (area treated) over a 50-year timespan and measured the response in terms of area burned, fire severity, wildland-urban interface exposure and timber production. We found that the backlog of areas in need of restoration on the national forest could be eliminated in 20 years when the treatment rate was elevated to a maximum of 3× the current level. However, higher rates of treatments early in the simulation created a future need to address the rapid buildup of fuels associated with understory shrub and tree regeneration. Restoration treatments over time had a large effect on fire severity, on average reducing potential flame length by up to 26% for the study area within the first 20 years, whereas reductions in area burned were relatively small. Although wildfire contributed to reducing flame length over time, area burned was only 16% of the total disturbed area (managed and burned with prescribed fire) under the 3× management intensity. Interactions among spatial treatment scenarios and treatment intensities were minimal, although inter-annual variability was extreme, with the coefficient of variation in burned area exceeding 200%. We also observed simulated fires that exceeded four times the historically recorded fire size. Fire regime variability has manifold significance since very large fires can homogenize fuels and eliminate clumpy stand structure that historically reduced fire size and maintained landscape resiliency. We discuss specific research needs to better understand future wildfire activity and the relative influence of climate, fuels, fire feedbacks, and management to achieve fire resiliency goals on western US fire frequent forests.
Accurate predictions of how weather may affect a wildfire’s behavior are needed to protect crews on the line and efficiently allocate firefighting resources. Since 1988, fire meteorologists have used a tool called the Haines Index to predict days when the weather will exacerbate a wildfire. Although the Haines Index is widely believed to have value, it never received rigorous testing on the line. Even Don Haines, the U.S. Forest Service meteorologist who developed the index, has said the Haines Index needs further refinement.
Recognizing that a new fire weather prediction tool was needed, a team composed of meteorologists with the U.S. Forest Service and St. Cloud State University developed the Hot-Dry-Windy Index. The index is based upon the three weather conditions—hot, dry, and windy—that significantly affect a wildfire’s behavior.
When the Hot-Dry-Windy Index and the Haines Index were evaluated on four wildfires that burned in the United States between 2002 and 2011, the Hot-Dry-Windy Index proved better at identifying days when weather contributed to dangerous wildfire conditions. Because of the positive feedback received during subsequent field testing, the National Weather Service has recommended that fire meteorologists evaluate the Hot-Dry-Windy Index as a fire weather tool for use on wildfires.
This paper describes the development of a logistic model to predict the probability of surface fire spread in Brazilian rainforest fuels from outdoor experimental measurements. Surface fires spread over litter composed mostly of dead leaves and twigs. There were 72 individual outdoor experiments in eighteen sites. The fire propagated in 49% of the experiments. In each experiment, the litter height, litter temperature, unburned litter mass, wet and dry litter mass, soil temperature, wet and dry soil mass, ambient wind velocity, ambient air temperature, ambient air relative humidity and duration of fire spread were measured. Using these data, the rate of fire spread, litter bulk density, litter and soil moisture content, litter load and litter residue fraction were determined. For the sake of analysis, experimental results were classified into two groups: one for which the fire propagated and the other one for which the fire self-extinguished. Analyses of a logistic regression model showed that the relevant parameters for fire propagation are litter height and litter moisture content. Concerning the probability of successful fire propagation, the model showed a true positive rate of 71% and a true negative rate of 84%. The outdoor experiments also served to gather data to improve the understanding of surface fires and to provide input data for future computer simulations.