You are here

Using “good” fires to reduce “bad” fire effects and smoke impacts

Date: August 29, 2019

“Good” fire vs “bad” fire should not be equated with prescribed fire vs wildfire, but on whether desired fire effects are achieved that meet forest and fuels management goals


Prescribed crown fire at Manning Creek in the Fishlake National Forest. Photo credit: Roger Ottmar. Photo taken: June 20th, 2019
Prescribed crown fire at Manning Creek in the Fishlake National Forest. Photo credit: Roger Ottmar. Photo taken: June 20th, 2019

Background

Prescribed fires produce smoke that adversely impacts public health, although not to the same degree as wildfires. The public needs to understand these trade-offs, but scientists can also assist by improving the fire and smoke models used to forecast smoke impacts on downwind communities.

Research

The Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE) is a large-scale inter-agency effort to identify how fuels, fire behavior, fire energy and meteorology interact to determine the dynamics of smoke plumes, the long-range transport of smoke and local fire effects such as soil heating and vegetative response. FASMEE is designed to collect observations from large prescribed fires by combining Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), radar, ground monitoring, aircraft and satellite imagery, and weather and atmospheric measurements. Knowing more about how wild land fire operates helps land managers better predict fire behavior, smoke impacts, and the short- to long-term effects of fire. It also promotes increased public and firefighter safety and aids in the allocation of firefighting resources.

Prescribed crown fire intended to reduce fuels and regenerate aspen to achieve management objectives at the Fishlake National Forest. Photo credit: Roger Ottmar. Photo was taken June 19th,  2019
Prescribed crown fire intended to reduce fuels and regenerate aspen to achieve management objectives at the Fishlake National Forest. Photo credit: Roger Ottmar. Photo was taken June 19th, 2019
The scale and scope of the wildfire challenge in the West is enormous and involves not just the US Forest Service and other federal land management agencies, but the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), among others. The Fire Influence on Regional to Global Environments Experiment - Air Quality (FIREX-AQ), jointly run by NOAA and NASA, is currently investigating both wild and prescribed fires nationwide. 

The overarching objective of FIREX-AQ is to measure trace gas and aerosol emissions for wildfires and prescribed fires in great detail, relate them to fuel and fire conditions at the point of emission, characterize the conditions relating to plume rise, follow plumes downwind to understand chemical transformation and air quality impacts, and assess the efficacy of satellite detections for estimating emissions from fires. Andrew Hudak’s role in FIREX-AQ is to use field and lidar datasets to more accurately estimate fuels and fuel consumption on selected fires where such data are available. More accurate fuel and consumption estimates will reduce the two largest sources of uncertainty in the quality and quantity of smoke emissions from fires, such that existing fuel, fire and smoke models can be improved to more accurately predict smoke impacts on the public. 

Key Findings

An image of a man with a beard and classes wearing a dark blue shirt and khaki shorts standing on an airport runway in front of an airplane with "Armstrong Flight Research Earth Science" written on the side of the plane. The photograph has a light green transparent bar over it with the following text: "'I spend a lot of time collecting field plot data to interpret and add value to satellite and airborne remote sensing data.' Andrew Hudak USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station"
Research Forester Andrew Hudak on August 13th, 2019 with the DC-8 while based in Boise to fly through wildfire smoke plumes to measure smoke emissions. Photo credit: Amber Soja
We are still in the data collection phase of the project. But related prior research and expert knowledge suggest:

  • Wildfire smoke emissions are often transported thousands of miles and can impact large regions of the US at a time. 
  • Prescribed fires are usually smaller and less intense than most wildfires but occur more frequently and throughout the whole year.
  • Prescribed fires are usually ignited during periods that minimize population exposure and air quality impacts, but noticeable effects remain. 

Related Documents and Media

Featured Publications

Prichard, Susan ; Larkin, N. ; Ottmar, Roger ; French, Nancy ; Baker, Kirk ; Brown, Tim ; Clements, Craig ; Dickinson, Matt ; Hudak, Andrew T. ; Kochanski, Adam ; Linn, Rod ; Liu, Yongqiang ; Potter, Brian ; Mell, William ; Tanzer, Danielle ; Urbanski, Shawn P. ; Watts, Adam , 2019


Principal Investigators - External: 
Roger D. Ottmar - Pacific Northwest Research Station
Forest Service Partners: 
James Cronan, Co-Investigator, Pacific Northwest Research Station
External Partners: 
Craig Clements, Co-Investigator, San Jose State University
Adam Watts, Co-Investigator, Desert Research Institute
Leda Kobziar, Co-Investigator, University of Idaho
Nancy French, Co-Investigator, Michigan Technological University
J. Morgan Varner, Co-Investigator, Tall Timbers Research Station
Research Location: 
Manning Creek Fire in June was on Fishlake National Forest, the FASMEE Western Wildfire Campaign is currently expanding to the U.S. West, and FIREX-AQ has a national scope that includes Midwestern agricultural fires and southeastern prescribed fires.