Joint Fire Science Program slated to be defunded

What you can do

Joint Fire Science ProgramThe Joint Fire Science Program is slated to be defunded by the Administration in the current budget proposal for FY 2020. If you have thoughts about this, consider signing on to a letter of support by April 8, 2018.

Here is a description of the JFSP:

The Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) was established in 1998 to provide scientific information and support for wildland fuel and fire management programs. The program is a partnership of six federal agencies; the Forest Service in the Agriculture Department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Geological Survey, all in the Department of the Interior. JFSP received specific direction from Congress to address four areas: fuels inventory and mapping, evaluation of fuels treatments, scheduling of fuels treatments and development of protocols for monitoring and evaluation.

In 2001, Congress further directed JFSP to expand its research efforts in post-fire rehabilitation and stabilization, local assistance, and aircraft-based remote sensing. Research sponsored by JFSP also examines other fire related issues including air quality, smoke management, and social aspects of fire and fuels management. In short, the purpose of JFSP is to provide wildland fire and fuels information and tools to specialists and managers, helping them to make the best possible decisions and develop sound, scientifically valid plans. The JFSP is managed by an appointed ten-person governing board with five representatives from the Department of Interior and five representatives from the USDA Forest Service. The board meets several times a year and conducts frequent conference calls to discuss program management and issues.

Wildland fire research funding opportunities

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The Great Basin Fire Exchange has accomplished a good deed for the wildland fire research community. They took a painful to read announcement about opportunities for research funding from the Joint Fire Science Program and distilled it into a short and uncomplicated notice.

(The links in the image below don’t work, since it’s a screen shot, but they both go to HERE.)

jfsp funding announcement

A researcher considering applying for funding will still need to go to the JFSP site to get the details. Proposals are due by May 16, 2019.

In FY 2017, 16 of the 22 approved projects were various ways of studying vegetation. Back then we wrote:

It would be refreshing to see more funds put toward projects that would enhance the science, safety, and effectiveness of firefighting.

Judging from the descriptions of the current funding opportunities it appears that the JFSP is moving away from awarding 72 percent of the awards to vegetation studies.

Researchers compare smoke emissions from prescribed and wild fires

DC-10 drop North Park Fire
A DC-10 comes out of the smoke dropping retardant on the North Park Fire in Southern California, October 12, 2018. Screen grab from @ABC7Leticia video.

Four researchers, in a study funded by the U.S. Forest Service, evaluated data collected in 25 previous studies to compare exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) created by prescribed fires and wildfires. The authors were Kathleen Navarro, Don Schweizer, John Balmes, and Ricardo Cisneros. Titled, A Review of Community Smoke Exposure from Wildfire Compared to Prescribed Fire in the United States, it is published under Open Access guidelines.

Below are excerpts from the study — the abstract and conclusions. And, information about a March 21 webinar featuring Ms. Navarro about the health effects of vegetation smoke.


Prescribed fire, intentionally ignited low-intensity fires, and managed wildfires-wildfires that are allowed to burn for land management benefit-could be used as a land management tool to create forests that are resilient to wildland fire. This could lead to fewer large catastrophic wildfires in the future. However, we must consider the public health impacts of the smoke that is emitted from wildland and prescribed fire.

The objective of this synthesis is to examine the differences in ambient community-level exposures to particulate matter (PM2.5) from smoke in the United States in relation to two smoke exposure scenarios-wildfire fire and prescribed fire. A systematic search was conducted to identify scientific papers to be included in this review. TheWeb of Science Core Collection and PubMed, for scientific papers, and Google Scholar were used to identify any grey literature or reports to be included in this review. Sixteen studies that examined particulate matter exposure from smoke were identified for this synthesis-nine wildland fire studies and seven prescribed fire studies. PM2.5 concentrations from wildfire smoke were found to be significantly lower than reported PM2.5 concentrations from prescribed fire smoke.

Wildfire studies focused on assessing air quality impacts to communities that were nearby fires and urban centers that were far from wildfires. However, the prescribed fire studies used air monitoring methods that focused on characterizing exposures and emissions directly from, and next to, the burns.

This review highlights a need for a better understanding of wildfire smoke impact over the landscape. It is essential for properly assessing population exposure to smoke from different fire types.


Destructive wildfires have higher rates of biomass consumption and have greater potential to expose more people to smoke than prescribed fires. Naturally ignited fires that are allowed to self-regulate can provide the best scenario for ecosystem health and long-term air quality. Generally, prescribed fire smoke is much more localized, and the smoke plumes tend to stay within the canopy, which absorbs some of the pollutants, reducing smoke exposure. Land managers want to utilize prescribed fire as a land management tool to restore fire-adapted landscapes. Thus, additional work is needed to understand the differences in exposures and public health impacts of smoke of prescribedfire compared to wildfire. One way to do this would be for managers to collaborate with air quality departments (internal to agency or external) to monitor PM2.5concentrations in communities near a prescribed fire.

Consistent monitoring strategies for all wildland fires, whether prescribed or naturally occurring, are needed to allow the most robust comparative analysis. Currently, prescribed fire monitoring is often focused on capturing the area of highest impact or characterizing fire emissions, while wildfire monitoring often relies on urban monitors supplemented by temporary monitoring of communities of concern. A better understanding of smoke impact over the landscape and related impacts is essential for properly assessing population exposure to smoke from different fire types.

(end of excerpt)

In a webinar March 21 at 11 a.m. CDT, Ms. Navarro will describe information from a different smoke study. She will present on a recent Joint Fire Science Program study estimating the lifetime risk of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease from exposure to particulate matter (PM) from smoke. This analysis combined measured PM exposures on wildfires, estimated wildland firefighter breathing rates, and an exposure disease relationship for PM to estimate mortality of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality from lifetime exposure to PM.

President proposes cuts to fire research and a small increase in fuels treatments

The President’s proposed budget for FY 2020 will likely be heavily modified by Congress

The Trump administration has released their recommendations for the federal budget for Fiscal Year 2020 which begins October 1, 2019. The Constitution gives sole authority for appropriating taxpayer funds to Congress, and it is certain that the 535 elected members of the House and Senate will heavily modify the proposal. However, Mr. Trump has an unusual amount of influence on how the members of his party in Congress vote, so it may not be a complete waste of time to quickly review the Administration’s proposed budget for wildland fire to see along what lines the White House is thinking.

I looked at the President’s FY 2020 recommendations for the U.S. Forest Service and the four major land management agencies in the Department of the Interior — National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs  — with the numbers for the DOI agencies lumped. I compared the proposed numbers with the FY 2018 budget. There was no approved budget for this year, FY 2019. Instead, the agencies had to make do with a series of continuing resolutions that basically maintained the same amounts as in FY 2018.

The charts below are from the information released by the Administration (at the links above).

President's FY 2020 proposed budget U.S. Forest Service
President’s FY 2020 proposed budget for the U.S. Forest Service.

Previous budget recommendations from the Administration broke it down in detail, listing the numbers of firefighters, engines, dozers, hot shot crews, and aircraft that would be funded. This latest document does not have that level of detail.

There is not much change in Preparedness, the category that covers existing firefighting capability and funds all base-8 salary costs for firefighters. It remains the same in the DOI, and the FS would see a 5 percent increase.

For the Suppression category, actually putting out or managing fires, the rules will change in FY 2020. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 kicks in and provides new budget authority to fight wildfires, known as the “fire fix.” Beginning in FY 2020 and through FY 2028, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior will have new budget authority available when standard fire Suppression funding has been exhausted in a busy fire year. This starts with an additional $2.25 billion in FY 2020 and increases by $100 million each year through FY 2027. These additional funds are to be allocated to both the FS and the DOI as needed. This adds some budget stability and should help mitigate  the “fire borrowing” problem, where unrelated programs see their funds moved over to fire Suppression.

Below: proposal for the DOI (millions of dollars):

presidents proposed budget DOI fire
President’s FY 2020 proposed budget for wildland firefighting in the Department of the Interior.

Science and research would take a big hit under the President’s recommendation, with Forest Service Research being cut by 14 percent while the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) would be completely unfunded. Shuttering the JFSP has been talked about for a couple of years, with the administration saying the funds would be moved over to general Research — which is being reduced.

The Hazardous Fuels allocations in the DOI and FS would both see a modest 5 percent increase, which may seem surprisingly small since the President has ranted several times about “cleaning up the forests” in California. The combined rates of inflation in 2017 and 2018 were 4.5 percent.

Funds allocated for building or improving Fire Facilities in the DOI would be reduced from $18 million to zero.

Outside Magazine breaks down the total budget proposal for the National Park Service.

Wildfires have memories

wildfire spread mosaic behavior
Photo from the research described below.

Researchers studying how wildfires have burned at a particular location found that subsequent fires have a “memory” that helped to self-regulate fire sizes and fire severity. When historical fires burned unabated, landscape patterns of surface and canopy fuels developed that provided barriers to future fire spread. Those same barriers can continue to influence the spread of additional fires.

Susan Prichard and Paul Hessburg were the principal investigators on the “Reburn Project” for the Joint Fire Science Program. They developed a paper, “Evaluating the influence of prior burn mosaics on subsequent wildfire behavior, severity, and fire management options”.

Here are some additional highlights from their findings:

The Reburn Project was motivated by a need to better understand wildfires as fuel reduction treatments and to assess the impacts of decades of wildland fire suppression activities on forested landscapes. The study examined three areas, located in the inland Pacific Northwest, central Idaho and interior British Columbia. Each area had experienced a recent large wildfire event in montane forests.

Reburn  Highlights

  • Past wildfires generally mitigate burn severity for a time, even under extreme fire weather conditions that are associated with large fires.
  • Since around 1900-1934, fire suppression and not wildfire has been a primary influence on forest and fuel succession. Quantifying the effects of fire suppression on particular landscapes is difficult given the long history and its prevalence across the region. Results from simulation modeling have the potential to illustrate in compelling ways the combined effects of removing fires from landscapes that experienced variable fire severity and spatial extent.
  • The researchers developed a state-transition model that allowed them to simulate the growth and potential severity 20th century ignitions that were suppressed. Fire growth simulations were modeled using the daily meteorology available at the time of the ignitions and the FSPro model. The researchers found that the simulated landscapes were reburn landscapes; i.e., the complexity of forest seral stage conditions and fuelbeds was an emergent property of successive reburning over the centuries, and fuel succession explained most of the severity patterns  observed.
  • Modern-day fire suppression scenarios led to “boom and bust” landscapes, where continuous mature forests developed, that were capable of supporting large fire spread, and were eventually burned with mostly high severity. However, using a variety of historical landscape conditions as an initial basis, in scenarios where most or all fires were allowed to burn, fine- to meso-grained patchworks resulted, and they provided a highly diverse range of habitats and values over time, and landscapes were much less susceptible to large, high severity events. Instead, more typical fire size distributions and more characteristic variation in fire severity were restored.


Engineer who worked on plans for nuclear-powered airplane later developed the fire spread model

Throwback Thursday: the origin of the model for predicting the spread of wildland fires

Today we may take it for granted that tools are available that can estimate how a fire, unplanned or prescribed, will spread across a landscape. It is not an exact science because there are far too many variables than can realistically be accounted for, at least with the technology available today. But in 1972 when Dick Rothermel and others developed the Forest Service’s first quantitative, systematic tool for predicting the spread and intensity of forest fires, it introduced a new era in fire management. And surprisingly, it is still the main tool being used today. Many researchers have produced alternative models, but none have made it into the hands of firefighters on a widespread basis.

Dick Rothermel fire research Ember Award
For his research and contributions to understanding how fires spread, Dick Rothermel was given the Ember Award at caonference in Missoula in 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

After Mr. Rothermel developed the mathematical model, others used the information to make the concept more user-friendly and to analyze complex scenarios. Behave, software burned onto a custom made chip in a hand-held Texas Instruments 51 calculator, and later BehavePlus for personal computers, became must-have tools for fire behavior analysts. FARSITE added the ability to predict spread across variable terrain, vegetation, and weather. Rare Event Risk Assessment Process (RERAP) estimates the risk that a fire will reach a particular place before it dies. FireStem estimates tree mortality based on fire behavior and intensity. And there are many others.

When Mr. Rothermel began researching the behavior of wildland fires, he had just been downsized from a shuttered Department of Defense program that had been attempting to develop a nuclear-powered airplane.

Below is an excerpt from an excellent article by Gail Wells for the March, 2008 edition of Fire Science Digest, a publication of the Joint Fire Science Program.

[Jack] Barrows, [the first director of the fire laboratory in Missoula when it opened in 1960], went looking for researchers. He learned that General Electric was closing a laboratory in Idaho Falls where engineers had been working on a defense project to develop a nuclear-powered airplane. The government scrapped the program in 1961, and a handful of highly trained engineers and scientists were suddenly up for grabs.

“GE wanted to see that we got as good a placement as we could,” Rothermel recalls. “So we all wrote resumes, and Jack got hold of these, and he said it was like a Sears and Roebuck catalog of people.” Barrows hired four of the GE scientists: Hal Anderson, a physicist; Stan Hirsh, an electrical engineer; Eric Breuer, a technician; and Dick Rothermel.

Their hiring represented a departure from Forest Service custom. Up until that time, fire research had been pretty much the domain of foresters, who are used to looking at their work through the lenses of biology and silviculture. Gisborne was a forester; Barrows was a forester. But Barrows recognized that fire is a physical process, and that physical scientists and engineers could contribute much to the emerging science of fire behavior.

Rothermel, then barely into his 30s, was glad to join Barrows’s staff. He had a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Washington. During the 8 years since he’d graduated, he had worked in the engineering of nuclear systems in Albuquerque and then in Idaho. (Rothermel later went on for a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Colorado State University.)

“I had the option of staying on [at GE] and working on a lot of programs, but with the cancellation of the atomic-powered airplane, nothing sounded that appealing,” he says. “And then I heard about this laboratory, and they said they had two wind tunnels and a combustion lab where you could control the atmosphere, temperature, and humidity. I thought, “Wow, that’s an opportunity!” Rothermel worked with Hal Anderson to get the new lab’s equipment calibrated and running smoothly. Then they began a set of experiments in the wind tunnel and combustion chamber, testing the effects of wind and moisture on various fuels and determining how fast a fire would spread under different conditions.


Given their training, it made sense to Rothermel and Anderson to approach the task as an engineering problem. Says Rothermel: “The idea was, if we could develop a way of describing the fuels, the weather, the topography, and something about the fire, and be able to put that into what we call a mathematical model, and if we described all these things properly, the model would integrate it and produce answers. It would tell you the resulting fire intensity, rate of spread, flame length, these sorts of things.”

Rothermel, Anderson, and Bill Frandsen, another physicist on the project, adapted an approach developed by an early Forest Service fire researcher, Wally Fons, which turned on the concept of conservation of energy. A fire spreads by igniting a series of little fires in the fuel ahead of it. The ignitions are driven by convection, radiation, and conduction. Even if it’s unknown which mode is operating in a given instance, the rate of heat transfer can be measured. The researchers reasoned that if they knew how much fuel was ahead of a fire, how big and how densely packed the fuel particles were, and how much moisture the fuel contained, then they could figure out how much energy would be needed to transfer enough heat to bring the fuel up to the ignition point. They could then calculate the rate of ignition that would carry the fire as it spread. The model would also have to account for the critical variables of wind speed and slope of the ground.

Because of the limitations of wind tunnels and combustion chambers, the model is forced to make certain assumptions that don’t hold in real life. For example, it assumes that the fuel is continuous and evenly distributed and burns uniformly. It further assumes that the fire is carried primarily by dead plant material and that only moisture will stop it.

The Rothermel model “describes very well a fire burning in a field of wheat,” says Bret Butler, a mechanical engineer at the Fire Sciences Lab whom Rothermel hired in 1992. “As you get further away from that uniformity, the less accurate it becomes.”

More significantly, the researchers had no basis for modeling the endless spatial variability that actually exists in a forest. So there was no way to simulate a fire’s movement through clumpy, discontinuous trees and shrubs. There was also no way to model a crown fire, one that leaves the surface and moves up into the crowns of trees. These were significant and universally acknowledged shortcomings.

Fire research scientists throughout the world are working on developing more accurate surface-fire spread models, but at this point all of them are too complicated to be used in an operational system. The beauty of Rothermel’s model, says Butler, “is that it’s simple—it can be run quickly with a low-capability computer.”

(end of excerpt)

What made me think of Mr. Rothermel was a graphic distributed on Twitter today by the National Weather Service. It is a fancy, colorized version of the figure in his 1972 paper that depicts how heat is transferred in a fire.

wildfire research dick rothermel
Graphic distributed by @NWS that is based on Dick Rothermel’s 1972 paper.

But of course Mr. Rothermel’s contributions are far more complex than this graphic.

Below is a screenshot from his paper where he describes Propagating Flux, just one of many elements of his mathematical fire spread model.

rothermel propagating flux

And here is his summary of equations for the model:

Summary equations Rothermel's 1972 paper fire model
Summary of equations from Rothermel’s 1972 paper.

Epilogue 1: The current administration has expressed a desire to zero-out the budget for the Joint Fire Science Program, the organization that published the 2008 article. 

Epilogue 2: Mr. Rothermel was one of the 655 attendees at the Fire Continuum Conference in Missoula last month.