You are here

Fire ecology

Science Spotlights

The Cheesman Lake landscape 13 years following the 2002 Hayman Fire. Living trees are apparent only adjacent to Cheesman Lake. Photograph by P.M. Brown.
In 2002, the Hayman Fire burned across the unlogged Cheesman Lake landscape, a 3,400 hectare dry-conifer forest landscape in Colorado that had been the subject of previous fire history and forest structure research. We opportunistically leveraged pre-existing fire history and forest structure to provide insight into whether the Hayman Fire burned more severely than historical ones.
A post-fire ponderosa pine seedling stands alone in a severely burned portion of the 2002 Hayman Fire, Colorado. (File name: fornwalt spotlight 2016 post-fire tree regeneration
Wildfire is an important disturbance in ponderosa pine forests of the southern Rocky Mountains, but the past two decades have witnessed fires of increased severity. The severely burned portions of these fires are generating concern about forest resilience, as there is uncertainty about ponderosa pine’s ability to regenerate in areas where no surviving trees remain.
Research Forester Emily Heyerdahl prepares samples for archiving (photo by Roger Pilkington).
The Rocky Mountain Research Station is preparing more than 16,000 tree-ring specimens for permanent archiving. Each specimen is a unique record of the environmental conditions from which it came. This tree-ring specimen collection will be permanently archived at the only federally recognized tree-ring repository in the U.S., where its importance will grow as it is used in ways we cannot currently imagine.
Simulated fire behavior during the green, red, and gray stages of a mountain pine beetle outbreak under various levels of tree mortality (20%, 58%, and 100% mortality) and low wind speeds.
This study explored the impact of beetle-induced mortality and wind speed on fire behavior during the pre-outbreak (“green stage”), immediately post-mortality when dead needles remain on trees (“red stage”), and when needles drop to the ground (“gray stage”) in southwestern ponderosa pine forests.
Simulations show where fires would have spread and reveal hidden consequences of suppression.
Researchers have investigated the true costs of suppressing wildfires and found the results to have broad national applicability. These methods are being evaluated in the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest, and findings improve the quality and consistency of fire and fuels management decisions. This research highlights the importance of wilderness areas for understanding fire ecology within unmanaged versus more heavily managed landscapes.  
Flowers of sticky whiteleaf manzanita, one of many plant species reviewed by FEIS scientists (photo by George W. Hartwell).
Thirty years ago, Rocky Mountain Research Station scientist William (Bill) Fischer proposed a highly innovative computer system to provide managers with information about the effects of prescribed fire. Technology has changed radically since Fischer originally envisioned a computer program to provide fire effects information electronically. The FEIS user interface now enables readers to search using many criteria, including maps, and it connects...
Hikers in the Lost Coast Wilderness in California (USDA FS)
The Wilderness Act noted its 50th anniversary in the signing of the law in 2014. Leopold Institute scientists and partners contributed five major articles highlighting 50 years of Wilderness science.
Top-view of the flame zone of a spreading fire in the laboratory showing pocket structures resulting from buoyant-flow instabilities.
The phrase “spreads like wildfire” is well-known but until recent discoveries through experiments it wasn’t well-known how wildfires actually spread. Attempts to develop physical models have conceded a diversity of proposed formulations, rather than a foundational theory, because the exact physics of wildfire spread has not yet been discovered. New research by Rocky Mountain Research Station scientists and their collaborators clearly revealed...
Removing young juniper trees with a chainsaw to restore a mountain big sagebrush community (photo by Jeremy Roberts)
Sagebrush ecosystems and the more than 350 species that rely on them are highly imperiled due to persistent threats such as invasive annual grasses, pinyon and juniper expansion, and altered fire regimes. Understanding their relative resilience or recovery potential following wildfire or management treatments provides the basis for more effective selection of treatment areas and restoration strategies.
Red mountain pine beetles are dry and highly flammable.
Beetle-killed trees lose their needles over time, and once all the needles have dropped, crown fire danger largely disappears. However, red-needled trees have lower foliar moisture contents than healthy trees, which leads to increased crown fire potential. This research provides insights into the potential use of fuel treatments in beetle-killed forests, increases firefighter awareness of dangerous situations, and assists managers in identifying...