Scientists study how, why butterflies survive fires

adult Frosted Alfin Butterfly

An adult frosted alfin butterfly

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Deciding how often and when to use prescribed fire can be tricky, especially when managing for rare butterflies, University of Florida scientists say.

That realization stems from a UF Institute of Food and Agricultural study in which researchers experimented with pupae — insects in their immature form between larvae and adults — of butterflies known to frequent fire-prone habitats of Florida.

Prescribed burns and wildfires can damage animals and plants in their paths. But they can also promote species and create habitat, maintaining the ecological balance of the forest and the region’s most frequent natural disturbance over the long term. Immature butterflies may die immediately following controlled burns, but populations can recover over time, with the amount of time depending on the species.

Scientists are concerned that butterflies with small, isolated populations may be in severe peril if their habitats are burned too frequently and in large blocks at a time, which can mean that butterfly refugia – unburned areas that provide refuge — are limited.

In the UF/IFAS study, scientists wanted to know how and why some butterflies survive wildfires and prescribed burns, particularly where the insect feeds and lays eggs on fire-adapted plants.

Prescribed fire, butterfly research

Prescribed fire for butterfly research

To date, most studies on the impact of fires on insects have been done in the Midwest, said Jaret Daniels, a UF/IFAS associate professor in entomology, who supervised the study as part of a dissertation by former UF doctoral student Matt Thom.

“We are increasingly faced with developing appropriate strategies to help conserve a growing list of rare organisms, including many insects,” Daniels said. “Understanding how prescribed fire and other land- management techniques impact these populations is critical to ensure their long-term survival.”

Thom also worked on the study with Leda Kobziar, a UF/IFAS associate professor in forest resources and conservation. The study appeared online May 27 in the journal PLOS ONE.

“Although we have a fairly robust understanding of how fire affects plant communities, the relationships between fire and insects is a greater mystery,” Kobziar said. “How is it that some organisms sensitive to fire also depend on specific plants that require fire to persist in a given environment? This research helps provide answers to this question, while revealing how much more we need to know to conserve the full spectrum of species through science-based fire management.”

To find out how and why some butterfly species survive fires, UF/IFAS scientists tested pupae in two North Florida forests that are typically managed with prescribed burns. Thom and his colleagues studied atala hairstreak and frosted elfin, two butterfly species that frequent fire-prone habitats.

Researchers collected data on burial depth of the frosted elfin at the Ralph E. Simmons Memorial State Forest in Nassau County. They conducted burn experiments with the atala hairstreak at the UF/IFAS Ordway Swisher Biological Station in Putnam County. They also put the pupae in laboratory baths at the UF Gainesville campus.

The atala hairstreak butterflies develop into pupae within or at the base of its host plant, while the frosted elfin sometimes goes down into the soil to pupate, Thom said.

In the experiment, scientists placed atala pupae at the soil surface and at different depths. The pupae died at the soil surface and in very shallow depths below ground, Thom said. However, when buried at 1.1 inch or more below ground, butterflies survived 75 percent to 100 percent of the time, as the temperature and the amount of heat they were exposed to decreased, Thom said. Scientists saw a similar pattern in their lab experiments.

“Butterfly pupae that bury themselves deep enough in the soil can protect themselves from fire,” said Thom.

But there are important caveats.

For example, if a non-adult atala lives in an area that’s burned, it will probably die, said Thom, now a post-doctoral scientist with the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The situation also isn’t very promising for the frosted elfin. But there’s hope.

“The patchiness of fires increases where fires occur more frequently, because there’s less leaf litter.  “Less material burning translates to decreased heating of the soil,” Thom said.  “A more patchy fire probably means pupae on the ground have a better chance for survival, and there are more refugia for escaping adults.”


Photos credit: Matt Thom, Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and former UF/IFAS doctoral student.


Historic fire frequency, 1650 to 1850

map historic wildfire frequency

The map (click on it to see a larger version) represents the estimated wildfire frequency for the period 1650-1850, according to research by Daniel Dey, Richard Guyette, and Michael Stambaugh.

Their description of the project:

Knowledge of historic fire frequency is important in guiding restoration of fire dependent ecosystems, but it is often missing or cannot be determined locally due to lack of fire-scar tree records. A Northern Research Station scientist and collaborators have developed a new model called PC2FM that predicts historic fire frequency for the continental United States. The model uses mean maximum temperature, precipitation, their interaction, and estimated reactant concentrations to estimate mean fire intervals. Having science-based estimates of historic fire frequencies for specific project areas is a major advancement in ecosystem restoration. Another important use of the model is in assessing potential changes in climate (temperature and moisture) on the likelihood of wildland fires. The PC2FM model can be used to map large-scale historic fire frequency and assess climate impact on landscape-scale fire regimes.

UPDATE June 5, 2015:

One of the comments from a reader what that they would like to have a poster-sized print of the image. If you go to Fine Art America you can order prints starting at $17, ranging in size from 8″ x 6″ up to 60″ x 44″. Frames are optional for an extra charge. The map can also be printed on cell phone cases, greeting cards, duvet covers, and throw pillows.


Colorado to use new system to predict wildland fire behavior

Janice Coen Gov. John Hickenlooper sign bill

Gov. John Hickenlooper traveled to an Arvada fire station to sign the bill that will implement a wildfire prediction system. Dr. Janice Coen, one of the developers of the system, is on the left. Photo provided by COHOUSEDEMS.

The Governor of Colorado signed a bill Wednesday that authorizes the state to spend $1.2 million over the next two years on a “revolutionary” wildfire prediction system that uses weather data, groundbreaking computer modeling, and high resolution satellite imagery to predict the spread of fires up to 18 hours in advance.

Below is an excerpt from an article at the (Colorado Springs) Gazette:

…”This bill will predict the intensity and the direction of fires 12 to 18 hours ahead of time. That is really important so we know where to direct our planes, the aircraft we had a bill for last year, and our firefighters,” said Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, who introduced the bill. “This is really revolutionary.”

Under the new law, the Division of Fire Prevention and Control will contract with a nonprofit Colorado-based research organization with expertise in atmospheric science to predict wildfire behavior. The National Center for Atmospheric Research, a federally funded program headquartered in Boulder, is the only state agency that meets that criteria. NCAR has used modeling to accurately recreate the behavior of historic fires, including the Yarnell Hill fire that killed 19 Arizona firefighters in 2013.

She said the new technology could be in place by next spring and will work with the state’s new aerial fire fleet, a multimillion-dollar investment into wildfire detecting and fighting aircraft lawmakers made in 2013…

Janice Coen at the National Center for Atmospheric Research is one of the scientists working on this program. We have written about her work previously:

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Barbara.


Ron Wakimoto — three decades of fire science

Ron Wakimoto

Ron Wakimoto. University of Montana photo.

The Missoulian has an interesting article about a fire scientist that influenced wildland fire practices and policy over the last few decades.

Below is an excerpt:


Ron Wakimoto rearranged how we think about fire

Some fire scientists burn down hillsides. Some burn up whole fire policies.

Ron Wakimoto has done both, developing research that helps save the lives of firefighters and helps return fire to the woods after a half-century of fighting to keep it out. Last week, he wound up more than three decades of teaching fire science at the University of Montana’s School of Forestry.

“Ron has been a leader in terms of teaching, and we wanted the students to be able to hear from an elder,” said Colin Hardy, director of the U.S. Forest Service Fire Sciences Laboratory, just before Wakimoto spoke to the annual Mike and Maybelle Hardy Lecture audience last Thursday. “He taught us we need to think about fire management, not just fire suppression. On the political and management side, it’s about air tankers and people on the ground and big iron – it’s a big show. But among fire managers today, Ron’s speaking to the choir.”

“I’m the one who doesn’t wear the green underwear,” Wakimoto joked about his presence as the academic in rooms full of U.S. Forest Service officials. “Policy and science rarely go together.”

Wakimoto got his initial introduction to fire studies from Harold Biswell at the University of California, Berkley. Biswell was a controversial figure then, picking up nicknames like “Dr. Burnwell” and “Harry the Torch” for his avocation of fire as a natural part of the landscape…”


Ninth grader invents a wildfire warning system

The video shows Sahar Khashayar demonstrating a wildfire detector on the Tonight Show.

The Orange County Register interviewed Ms. Khashayar after she became a finalist for the 2014 Broadcom MASTERS competition. Here is an excerpt from the interview:


“Q. Tell me about your wildfire early warning system – how does it work?

A. Basically what I did was I wanted to create something that 1) was cheaper than most fire detecting systems, 2) could detect multiple types of fires and not just smoke and 3) would be able to send a message to someone, so that if the alarm went off and the person wasn’t there, they would still know that it was happening.

Most fire detection systems, like the one we have right now, can cost $200 or more. My entire setup is about $56.

To solve the problem of different types of fires, we have three different sensors here. So there’s a gas sensor to detect carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide or propane gas and all kinds of gases. There’s an infrared sensor, which detects light waves; and a temperature sensor, which is for the ambient temperature for the area it’s in. They’re all connected to a microprocessor, and you can hook it up to your own laptop so it can read the different input from the different sensors.

Right now it’s connected to Bluetooth, which will send a message to your phone if it detects a fire. If this device actually becomes implemented somewhere, we would probably use a GSM, which is basically Wi-Fi, so that it can send a text since Bluetooth has a shorter range.

Q. Where did you get the inspiration to create this device?

A. There have been a lot of fires recently – and not just in California, but all over the United States – and it’s costing a lot of money and even lives. So it’s becoming a huge problem for the environment, for the economy and people in general. It was a problem that needed to be solved.”

UPDATE: June 5, 2015:

The  Orange County Register has an update on Ms. Khashayar and her device.


Researchers fly into convection columns to study wildfire smoke

Below are excerpts from an article at


“It’s a hot day in central Washington as a twin turboprop plane cruises southward. Through the cabin window, the jagged peaks of the Cascades rise in the west; to the east, a lush carpet of green vineyards and yellow wheat fields. But an hour into this flight, the blue skies give way to a white haze that rapidly turns to an alarming burnt orange.

The cabin begins to reek of smoke. The plane’s vibrations increase until the entire vessel is rocking and rolling. For a few seconds, the plane is literally free falling. All the while, outside the window, the sky grows darker and darker.

It’s another day at work for Arthur Sedlacek, an atmospheric chemist who is trying to solve one of the biggest mysteries in global climate change: the role that wildfires play when they spew millions of tons of soot skyward each year.

For five months in 2013, Sedlacek was part of a thrill-seeking team that flew into wildfire plumes in the Pacific Northwest and then Tennessee to measure exactly what’s in the soot. “Biomass burns are just this incredibly rich soup of raw material,” said Sedlacek, who is based at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.


It’s a tricky scientific problem because fires exert both warming and cooling effects on the climate.

Black smoke billowing up from a fire’s center has a warming effect because dark aerosols absorb light, keeping that energy trapped in our atmosphere. But as winds push aerosols away from the fire, the particles gather a reflective coating of organic matter, which has a cooling effect. White aerosols scatter light, sending that energy back into space.


So the smoke from wildfires can impact the climate directly, by reflecting and absorbing sunlight, and also indirectly, by influencing the formation of clouds. But how will these effects change as the frequency of wildfires increases in a warmer, drier world?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Lewis said.

To try to answer that question as precisely as possible, Sedlacek, Lewis and their colleagues sampled 17 wildfires, seven urban plumes, and more than three dozen agricultural burns during 120 hours of flight time in 2013. Their research project is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.


Sedlacek recalls one mid-summer flight that got especially hairy. “I remember about this time, hanging on, and thanking God I listened to the pilot when he said ‘buckle up’ because one of my colleagues had not and he went flying.” But that wasn’t the worst of it. In the thick of the plume the flight got even bumpier. Sedlacek overheard his pilot pleading with his engine, saying “stay with me baby, stay with me.”

As soon as the aircraft safely landed, Sedlacek pulled the pilot aside to ask why he was so worried about the engine. The pilot explained that aircraft engines need oxygen to burn fuel, and there’s very little oxygen in a smoke plume.”