Wildfire is a part of nature. It plays a key role in shaping ecosystems by serving as an agent of renewal and change. But fire can be deadly, destroying homes, wildlife habitat and timber, and polluting the air with emissions harmful to human health. Fire also releases carbon dioxide—a key greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere. Fire effects are influenced by forest conditions before the fire and management action taken or not taken after the fire, and may be long-lasting.
Scientists with the Pacific Northwest Research Station are conducting a range of studies pertaining to fire effects on the environment in multiple fields of study, from meteorology to ecology. Learn more by clicking on a topic below to jump to that section.
Fire behavior broadly refers to a fire’s intensity and rate of spread. More specifically, it is the way fuel ignites and how flames develop. Scientists who study fire behavior are interested in factors that influence fire intensity and rate of spread, such as fuel types, weather, and topography. “Extreme” fire behavior indicates fire that does not respond to the usual methods of direct suppression, usually because of rapid spread, fire in the tree canopy (e.g., crowning), and formation of fire-related weather systems (e.g., pyrocumulus clouds). Station scientists have developed comprehensive syntheses of knowledge about extreme fire behavior for managers. Return to top.
Climate change is contributing to the increased risk and extent of wildfires in the Western United States. Wildfire risk depends on complex interactions between temperature, soil moisture, and the presence of trees, shrubs, and other potential fuels. All these factors have strong direct or indirect links with climate variability and climate change. Station scientists have found that climate change increases the potential for very large fires in the United States. Return to top.
Fire ecology explores the interactions between fire and the surrounding environment, including both living and nonliving things. Fire ecologists recognize that fire is a natural process that is often integral to the life history of plants and animals in the ecosystem. Station scientists study fire effects on ecosystems, fire history, how plants and animals depend on or adapt to fire, and fire regimes. A “fire regime” refers to the general pattern of wildfire’s natural occurrence in a particular ecosystem, including fire frequency, intensity, size, pattern, season, and severity. Return to top.
Station scientists are studying factors that contribute to wildfire risk and community vulnerability across the region to help support fire-resilient forests and communities. Researchers are also characterizing risk to communities on the west side of the Cascade Range where fires are less frequent than on the east side, but potentially very destructive. Return to top.
Wildfire smoke is a public health concern in the Western United States. The Pacific Northwest Research Station is a nationally recognized leader in smoke science. The station’s BlueSky smoke modeling framework enabled the first comprehensive nationwide smoke forecasts and forms the basis for smoke prediction systems and tools used across the country and around the world. Scientists with the station’s AirFire research team developed the Fire and Smoke Map on the EPA’s AirNow website and mobile app that shares current air quality conditions and fire locations across the United States. Return to top.
Fuel treatments are management actions that alter the amount or arrangement of forest vegetation to mitigate wildfire behavior and enhance fire resiliency. Fuel treatments can include mechanical thinning of dense stands of trees, piling brush, pruning lower branches of trees, or creating fuel breaks to encourage the right kind of fire. Prescribed fire is a form of fuel treatment. Return to top.
Wind and weather have immediate effects on the ignition, behavior, and suppression of wildland fires. Station scientists study the complex meteorology—the climate and weather of a region—associated with wildland fires, including how weather conditions create severe wildfires. Return to top.
The dense forests of the western Cascade Range in Oregon and Washington are known for their evergreen, wet conditions and infrequent wildfires. As the climate becomes warmer and drier, west-side forests are experiencing longer fire seasons, larger burns, and increased wildfire risk. Launched in 2019, the West-Side Fire Research Initiative aims to research and develop tools to support fire-related management on landscapes west of the Cascades. Through the initiative, scientists, fire managers, and stakeholders are working to coproduce the science needed to protect the health, safety, and economic well-being of communities in the region and support fire resilient forests. Return to top.