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Goal: Sustain Our Nation’s Forests and Grasslands Transforming fire ecology

False color infrared image of heat energy in a prescribed fire in longleaf pine
False color infrared image of heat energy in a prescribed fire in longleaf pine. The ability to capture the complexity of energy release in space and time can provide critical data for predicting forest response to the fire. Data such as these have revolutionized the field of fire ecology. (Forest Service photo by Joseph O’Brien)


Fire ecology is an essential discipline for guiding effective forest management, but progress in the field has stalled, leaving fire managers with critical knowledge gaps. The root of the problem may lie in both the lack of appropriate measurements and a focus on describing patterns instead of uncovering mechanisms in fire effects. New research proposes a path forward to improve both the underlying science of fire ecology and its application.


Understanding how wildland fire affects ecosystem structure and function is obviously a critical need for natural resource management. However, the field of fire ecology has been slow to progress, leaving a serious knowledge gap for managers. SRS scientists argue that the problem is two-fold. First, many fire ecology investigations occur after fires, with no detailed information on fire behavior. Second, fire behavior varies across spatial and temporal scales, and the occurrence of three-dimensional heat transfer is only now being appreciated. Capturing this variability is critical for identifying mechanisms that explain fire effects and building effective tools for fire managers. However, spatially and temporally resolved measurement of heat and mass transport in fires is difficult. Even when fire is measured, it is often measured in ways that cannot explain effects of interest. Recent advances in technology and analytical techniques used for measuring the fire environment offer promise for improving the science of fire ecology. SRS scientists and partners were awarded $2.6 million from the Department of Defense to pursue this line of research.

Principal Investigator
Joseph O’Brien, Research Ecologist
4156 - Center for Forest Disturbance Science
Strategic Program Area
Fire and Fuels
Advances in Mechanistic Approaches to Quantifying Biophysical Fire Effects
Research Partners
Louise Loudermilk (SRS)
Bret Butler (RMRS)
Matt Dickinson (NRS)
Morgan Varner (PSW)
External Partners
J. Kevin Hiers (Tall Timbers Research Station)
Chad Hoffman (Colorado State University)
Sean Michaletz (University of British Columbia)