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Christopher D. O'Connor

Kit O'Connor sampling the oldest apple tree in Kazakstan


800 East Beckwith Avenue
Missoula, MT 59801-5801
Contact Christopher D. O'Connor

Current Research

Kit O’Connor is an Ecologist with the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station working on the human dimensions of managing the risks and benefits of wildland fire. His current projects involve support for the National Forest Planning process and critical examination of the incident command structure to assist in development of scalable, long-term forest and fire planning decision systems.

Research Interests

Fire Ecology, Fire Management, Forest Disturbance Ecology, Entomology

Past Research

Kit’s previous work was centered on ecological reconstruction of landscape changes, response to climate and human impacts, and projected changes to forest and disturbance dynamics in response to projected future climate conditions.


  • University of Arizona, Ph.D., Natural Resource Management, 2013
  • University of Quebec at Montreal, M.S. Biology, Forest Entomology, 2009
  • Pennsylvania State University, B.S., Agricultural Science, 1999
  • Awards

    Outstanding Dissertation Award, 2014
    University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment
    Andrew Ellicott Douglass Memorial Scholarship, 2012
    University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research
    Western Forest Insect Work Conference Memorial Scholarship, 2011
    WFIWC Annual Memorial Scholarship recipient and key note speaker
    Science and Society Fellowship, 2010
    University of Arizona Biosphere 2
    Fulbright Fellowship, 2006
    Institute of International Education, U.S. Department of State

    Featured Publications


    Dunn, Christopher J.; O'Connor, Christopher D.; Reilly, Matthew J.; Calkin, Dave E.; Thompson, Matthew P., 2019. Spatial and temporal assessment of responder exposure to snag hazards in post-fire environments
    Riley, Karin; Williams, A. Park; Urbanski, Shawn P.; Calkin, Dave E.; Short, Karen C.; O'Connor, Christopher D., 2019. Will landscape fire increase in the future? A systems approach to climate, fire, fuel, and human drivers
    Klesse, Stefan; DeRose, R. Justin; Guiterman, Christopher H.; Lynch, Ann M.; O'Connor, Christopher D.; Shaw, John D.; Evans, Margaret E. K., 2018. Sampling bias overestimates climate change impacts on forest growth in the southwestern United States
    Wei, Yu; Thompson, Matthew P.; Haas, Jessica R.; Dillon, Gregory K.; O'Connor, Christopher D., 2018. Spatial optimization of operationally relevant large fire confine and point protection strategies: Model development and test cases
    O'Connor, Christopher D.; Falk, Donald A.; Lynch, Ann M.; Swetnam, Thomas W.; Wilcox, Craig P., 2017. Disturbance and productivity interactions mediate stability of forest composition and structure
    Panyushkina, Irina P.; Mukhamadiev, Nurjan S.; Lynch, Ann M.; Ashikbaev, Nursagim A.; Arizpe, Alexis H.; O'Connor, Christopher D.; Abjanbaev, Danyar; Mengdbayeva, Gulnaz Z.; Sagitov, Abay O., 2017. Wild apple growth and climate change in southeast Kazakhstan
    Mukhamadiev, N.; Lynch, Ann M.; O'Connor, Christopher D.; Sagitov, A.; Ashikbaev, N.; Panyushkina, I., 2014. The historical role of Ips hauseri (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) in the spruce forest of Ile-Alatausky and Medeo National Parks
    O'Connor, Christopher D.; Falk, Donald A.; Lynch, Ann M.; Wilcox, Craig P.; Swetnam, Thomas W.; Swetnam, Tyson L., 2010. Growth and demography of Pinaleno high elevation forests
    Mt. Jefferson, covered in snow, is highly visible behind a burned section of pine trees.
    A new tool developed through collaboration between RMRS and researchers at Oregon State University tracks treefall through time and may just save lives. Researchers found that snag hazard to fire responders decreased significantly 10-years post fire, but that in some areas, unsafe conditions could last as long as 35 years. Maps of snag hazard risk can be used by decision makers and fire responders to reduce exposure and improve the safety of wildfire response.
    Photo of a forest fire
    The 20th Century was a period of enormous change for western forests. Fire used to maintain distinct forest vegetation communities – pine, dry mixed-conifer, mesic mixed-conifer, and spruce-fir – in close proximity to one another along steep vertical gradients in the topographically diverse forests of the American Southwest. How did these forests change in response to fire exclusion? In what ways and how rapidly? What are the consequences of these changes? It is important to provide context for the condition of today’s forests, but more importantly, how can this information help today’s managers?
    This large Douglas-fir died in 2012 and is surrounded by many smaller Douglas-fir, white fir, and Southwestern white pine that recruited during fire exclusion.  Stand density in mesic mixed conifer forests increased on average 1725% during fire exclusion.
    The onset of fire exclusion in western North American forests in the late 1800s began one of the largest unintended landscape ecology experiments in human history. The current ecology of these forests and the ecological impacts of returning fire to these forests is strongly influenced by the amount of forest change that has occurred during the fire-free period. Understanding how different forest types responded to fire exclusion is important for implementing management strategies that restore fire as a natural process, promote forest health, and maintain well-functioning forests for future generations.  
    Using structured decision making (SDM) can change how resource managers make decisions by separating the clinical problem analysis from the value based decision process. In a natural resource management setting, SDM necessitates making decisions based on clearly articulated objectives, recognizing scientific prediction in decisions, addressing uncertainty explicitly, and responding with transparency towards societal values in decision making. When used as an overarching framework, natural resource managers can be better equipped to identify, critique, and discuss sources and implications of uncertainty and thus improve decision-making.
    Large wildfires are inherently more complex; often affecting multiple jurisdictions and requiring a balance of strategic long-term planning and nimble tactical solutions to meet dynamic conditions on the ground. With this increase in complexity comes increased uncertainty.
    The increasing complexity of the wildfire management environment has also created challenges for managing the exposure of wildfire responders to operational hazards. Firefighting is an inherently high-risk occupation and the fire environment is fraught with hazards that consistently cause injuries and fatalities each year. While some number of these hazards can be mitigated with improved safety equipment, communications, and safety protocols once responders are deployed. It is up to the fire command staff to determine, where and under what conditions the risk/benefit trade off of deploying boots on the ground makes sense.
    District and Forest Fire staff recently met with local cooperators and resource specialists to develop maps of potential control lines that they could use while managing a fire. Maps of control lines and potential operational delineations (PODs) are being developed for the entire Forest with the assistance of researchers from USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station and the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute.
    Effective and efficient risk based management requires integrated knowledge, systems and planning tools that explore the interaction of the full range of land and fire management activities. The Wildfire Risk Management Team is working with managers to develop and demonstrate the power of integrating fire-risk science across the full range of fire management activities from local to national scales. Improved linkages between landscape fire potential and land management objectives will have profound effects on the efficiency of the full range of fire management activities. 
    Although wildfires are inevitable, the destruction of homes, ecosystems, and lives is not. How can land management agencies, first responders, and affected communities who face the inevitability of wildfires reduce the potential for loss? Decision science and risk management are key principles in the effort to lower wildfire risks. In concert with the spatial risk assessment framework, the Wildfire Risk Management Team is exploring how principles of risk management, and resiliency and structured decision making can be applied to improve the effectiveness and safety of fire management.
    The cost and cost effectiveness of wildfire suppression efforts have recently been scrutinized due to increased suppression expenditures in the United States. This scrutiny has resulted in increased pressure to balance the costs, benefits, and risks of wildland fire management. The Wildfire Risk Management Team is using econometric modeling to empirically examine various aspects of wildland fire management expenditures such as identifying and examining factors related to suppression expenditures, and analyzing trends to better forecast suppression expenditures.
    Effective and efficient risk-based management requires integrated knowledge, systems and planning tools that explore the interaction of the full range of land and fire management activities. The Wildfire Risk Management team is working to develop and demonstrate the power of integrating fire-risk science across the full range of fire management activities. This work will include the first pilot study of changes in wildfire risk across time, using the prototype LANDFIRE time series dataset, created specifically for the study landscape.
    The Wildfire Risk Management Team is an interdisciplinary team that explores wildfire management through the lenses of risk analysis, economics, decision science, and landscape ecology to improve the scientific basis for the full range of wildfire management decisions. Primary research topics include integrated spatial risk assessment modeling and planning, econometric modeling of fire management expenditures, effectiveness of suppression resource utilization, organizational structure and managerial incentive systems, and performance measurement.