Resilience of Yellowstone’s forests tested by unprecedented fire

In 2016 some areas in Yellowstone National Park that burned in the 1988 fires unexpectedly burned again, and with surprising intensity

Maple Fire burns at Yellowstone National Park
The Maple Fire burns at Yellowstone National Park in 2016. The fire affected forests recovering from the park’s historic 1988 fires. PHOTO: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE / JENNIFER JERRETT

By Kelly April Tyrrell, University of Wisconsin

In August 2016, areas of Yellowstone National Park that burned in 1988 burned again. Shortly after, in October 2016, ecologist Monica Turner and her team of graduate students visited the park to begin to assess the landscape.

“We saw these areas where everything was combusted and we hadn’t seen that previously,” says Turner, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who has closely studied Yellowstone’s response to fire since 1988. “That was surprising.”

In a study published this week [May 20, 2019] in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Turner and her team describe what happens when Yellowstone —  adapted to recurring fires every 100 to 300 years — instead burns twice in fewer than 30 years. Yellowstone as we know it faces an uncertain future, the researchers say, and one of the big questions they hope to answer is whether the forests can recover.

yellowstone fires reburn
The pile of rocks with the nail in the middle signifies a long-term study plot Monica Turner and her research group established at Yellowstone National Park in 1990 following the park’s historic 1988 fires. This same plot burned again in 2016. Historically, fires burn in Yellowstone only every 100 to 300 years. PHOTO BY: MONICA TURNER

With Rapid Response Research funding from the National Science Foundation, Turner and her team returned to Yellowstone in the summer of 2017 to study the areas that re-burned. These include the Maple Fire, which burned 28-year-old lodgepole pines that regenerated following the 1988 North Fork Fire, and the Berry Fire, which contained 28-year-old lodgepole pines that had regenerated after the 1988 Huck Fire and 16-year-old trees that regenerated following the 2000 Glade Fire.

In each area, they compared to areas that burned in 1988 or 2000 but did not burn again in 2016.

Continue reading “Resilience of Yellowstone’s forests tested by unprecedented fire”

About a quarter of lightning-caused fires that grow large are not reported within first 7 days

holdover lightning-caused wildfires
(From the research) Locations of lightning-initiated holdover wildfires in the contiguous United States which grew to sizes ≥4 km2 between 2012 and 2015. Map was created using ArcGIS® software by Esri. Basemap is a source of the National Geographic Society and Esri (2019).

Researchers have found that about a quarter of the fires caused by lightning that grow to more than 4 km² (988 acres) are reported more than a week after they are ignited.

A paper published in the Fire Open Access Journal describes how the National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) and U.S. Forest Service fire data were used to determine the correlation between lightning strikes and the reported location of lightning-caused wildfires.

The NLDN, which has been used operationally for several decades, consists of 113 sensors across the continental United States and has a reported flash detection efficiency of cloud to ground flashes between 90–95%, with spatial errors that are typically less than 500 meters for the flash data used in the study.

The researchers found, of lightning-caused fires that grew to more than 4 km² (988 acres):

50% reported the same day
71% reported within 3 days
73% reported within 5 days
77% reported within 7 days

Holdover fires that are not reported for days or weeks after the lightning occurs can be problematic for land managers. Shortly after a thunderstorm has left the area, fire detection efforts are often ramped up and may continue in that mode for a few days. Fires that smolder in duff or under snow and suddenly grow can be unexpected. Firefighting resources that may have been staged in anticipation of emerging fires could be released or assigned to active incidents, complicating efforts at quick initial attack with overwhelming force.

Authors of the paper: Christopher J. Schultz, Nicholas J. Nauslar, J. Brent Wachter, Christopher R. Hain, and Jordan R. Bell.

Interview with Sara McAllister of the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory

Sara’s research focuses on the fundamental physics of wildland fire.

Sara McAllister
Sara McAllister, left, receives award for Early Career Fire Science. IAWF photo.

After the Fuels and Fire Behavior conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico last week I had the opportunity to sit down with Sara McAllister who had just received an award for an Early Career in Fire Science. She talked about how it felt to be selected for the award, her study of fire on spacecraft for NASA, researching how fires burn in New Zealand, and setting stuff on fire for a living at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory.

The video can also be viewed on YouTube.

Three fire researchers to receive Ember Awards

The individuals were recognized for their sustained achievement in wildland fire science

Roger Ottmar
Roger Ottmar (center) receives Ember Award from Tom Zimmerman (left) and Morgan Varner (right). Photo credit: Marjie Brown.

The International Association of Wildland Fire announced at last week’s Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference that three fire researchers will be given Ember Awards for their contributions to wildland fire science. Below is information from the IAWF:

Annually, the IAWF receives nominations for many highly regarded, deserving, and accomplished individuals that have demonstrated sustained achievement clearly worthy of recognition. However, historically, only one recipient has been honored each year.

For 2019, once again many deserving individuals have been nominated. Because there are so many nominees that have extensive achievements for the betterment of wildland fire management are extensive, we are extremely proud to announce that for 2019, IAWF has elected to award the Ember Award to three individuals who have a marked record of achievement, have made significant long-standing contributions, are highly respected in wildland fire management, and are deserving of the Ember Award.

The Ember Awards were presented at the Fire Behavior and Fuels conferences in Australia and the United States.

Roger Ottmar
Research Forester, US Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Region

Roger Ottmar has delivered actionable wildland fire science for over 35 years that has enormous benefits for the wildland fire system. He has led national programs that have resulted in 1) 19 volumes of the wildland fuels photo series (digital and hardcopy); 2) operational fuel consumption and emission production models; 3) the Fuel Characteristic Classification System (FCCS), and 4) assessing firefighter exposure to smoke. Ottmar is the original designer and project lead for the Fuel Characteristic Classification System and the CONSUME application currently in use by land managers across the country for building fuel beds and modeling fuel consumption and emissions from wildland fire.

Ottmar has authored and co-authored over 300 research publications and final reports and has served as principal investigator and Federal Cooperator on more than 100 grants, agreements, and co-ops between other Forest Service Research Stations, governmental agencies, private corporations, and Universities. He stands-out as one of the most prolific scientists to have worked with the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) since its inception in 1998. He regularly presents research at major scientific conferences. Ottmar has led over 35 classes on smoke management and leads several fuels workshops each year, including NWCG training. Ottmar led over 100 scientists and technicians during the Joint Fire Science Program funded Prescribed Fire and Combustion Dynamics Research Experiment (RxCADRE) that was completed in September 2014. Ottmar now leads the much larger national level Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation (FASMEE) Project.

Although these accomplishments are vast, Ottmar stands out even farther because of his professionalism and ability to build and lead coalitions within the wildland fire system. In the field of wildland fuels and modeling Ottmar’s name rings amongst the loudest.

Some specifics include:

  • Leads the Fuel Characteristic Classification System (FCCS) which calculates and classifies fuel bed characteristics (surface through canopy) and their potential fire behavior. Standard FCCS fuel beds exist throughout much of North America and are and important data product of LANDFIRE and are a main foundational data layer in IFT-DSS.
  • Leads the Natural Fuels Photo Series which comprises 15 volumes of registered photographs along with accompanying fuel data which are used to make quick, easy, and inexpensive determinations of fuel quantities and stand conditions for both planning and response operations.
  • Has served as an expert on fuel characterization and consumption in numerous workshops involving a large, diverse set of federal and non-federal scientists and practitioners. Important collaborators include EPA, DoD, the Forest Service, NOAA, NASA, and state organizations. Further, he serves as a prominent national consultant and technical expert on assessing top priorities for fire effects modeling and air quality-related research questions. Many of these collaborations do not involve funding, rather it has been Ottmar’s professionalism and dedication to the importance of wildland fire science that governed his participation.
  • For the last five years, led the development and implementation of the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE), a multi-agency, national effort to provide advanced measurements necessary to improve operational fire and smoke modeling applications and their foundational scientific models. By its very nature FASMEE involves a complex network of stakeholders, coalitions, collaborators, and partners.. Most recently, Ottmar has led a coalition of researchers that have successfully competed for over $5m in new research funding from DoD that compliments the FASMEE program.

Although he is a great and diligent scientist, of equal importance is his ability to interact and work with other people. Many can attest to the unsurpassed role he has played in communicating fuels-related information in various training courses and other settings. He makes incredibly complex biophysical fire science topics easily understandable, which contributes to his research being implemented on the ground for real-world positive outcomes. He is a consummate professional and always ready to commend versus criticize.

Dr, Ottmar received his award at the Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference in Albuquerque, NM.

Dr. Wendy Anderson
University of New South Wales Canberra (retired)

Throughout her career, Anderson has made highly significant contributions to wildland fire science, notably in the areas of fuel assessment and fire behavior. Her work with the analysis of experimental laboratory and field fires has aided in the development of models to support fire management decision making.

Dr. Wendy Anderson
Dr. Wendy Anderson received her award from IAWF President Alen Slijepcevic in Sydney.

She has published a substantial number of research articles, book chapters and technical reports that have significantly contributed to the advances of wildland fire science across a broad range of fuel types (forest, grass, shrubland) and topic areas including fire propagation, fuel consumption, fuel moisture dynamics and fire danger.

Since completing her PhD at the University of New South Wales in 1987 Anderson has played a pivotal role in the development of an effective international fire behavior research community. Her mentoring role in supporting aspiring scientists through the complex physical attributes of wildland fire research while maintaining a patient considerate approach is second to none. Both in Europe, Australia and New Zealand a generation of current leaders in fire science can be identified as being her direct students and/or having closely worked with her in their early careers. Her Short-courses on fire behavior delivered in the early 90’s to late 2000’s in Coimbra, Portugal provided early career fire behavior researchers with a clear view of a cluttered, and sometimes chaotic field with multiple and sometimes competing research approaches.

In addition to Anderson’s unparalleled academic work, she also devoted substantial energy to support and advise fire and land management agencies in Australia and New Zealand. Anderson established a bridge between complex scientific results and the needs of end users, providing advice on the most appropriate science to support fire management organization’s processes and decision making.

Anderson has retired from the School of Physical Environment and Mathematical Sciences, Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales, Canberra but she has continued to actively contribute to advancing wildland fire science through publication of scientific papers, mentoring early career scientists, and advising and training fire and land managers.

It can be easily stated that without Anderson’s contribution to fire science the current capability to predict fire propagation in Australia and elsewhere in the world would be greatly diminished, with inherent negative repercussions to the safety of fire fighters and the public alike.

Dr. Anderson’s award was presented at the Sydney, Australia conference.

Dr. Mark Finney
Research Scientist, U.S. Forest Service. Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. Missoula, MT.

Dr. Mark Finney has made highly significant contributions to wildland fire science through research in fire behavior. This research has involved fire behavior fundamentals and how key they are to understanding the opportunities for improving fire behavior modeling, especially for crown fires. He has led efforts to develop quantitative risk assessment that is essential to evaluating cost-effective operations in fire management.

Dr. Mark Finney
File photo of Dr. Mark Finney at the IAWF Fire Continuum Conference in Missoula, May 22, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

He is best known as the father of FARSITE, the world’s most successful wildfire behavior model, which is now an essential component of Forestry Agencies, Firefighting Command Centers and Fire Ecology Departments across the world.

FARSITE has been used since 1995 to model spatial fire behavior throughout the world. The model allows both suppression and prescribed fire managers to estimate more accurately where fires might burn, their potential intensity, spotting potential, use of different fire management tactics, and how to better deploy human resources. Before its development all fire simulations were one-dimensional, had no spatial component, and could not take landscape considerations into account. Also before FARSITE, fire behavior analysis work was done by a long and tedious manual process, often too slow to inform Command Centers. Finney’s work has paved the way for the development of similar computer models, and multiple fire behavior models in the US, Canada and Australia.

Not only are Finney’s fire modeling contributions a standalone tool for foresters, ecologists and firefighters across the world, but FARSITE is now available as part of the U.S. Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) that is used in planning on every large and long duration federal wildland fire.

But his contributions do not stop there, Finney has supported wildland fire science in other areas, including, but not limited to:

  • Co-creating FlamMap, the software for fire mapping and analysis system used to study potential fire behavior across the landscape);
  • Serving as team leader for the development of national Wildland Fire Investment Planning System (WFIPS) software designed for spatial modeling of initial attack, fuel treatment effects, and large fire costs to inform five federal land management agencies;
  • Developing the Fire Spread Probability Model (FSPro) to aid managers in determining the probability of where and how a fire may spread to; and,
  • Led development of tools available in the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) in the U.S., which has received numerous awards and recognition, including the Forest Service Chief’s Science and Technology Award twice and the Federal Laboratory Consortium Award for Technology Transfer.

His current research focuses on the study of fire spread in deep and discontinuous fuel beds, which will improve understanding of the fire behaviors that are not understood and able to be predicted today, such as crown fire. He is also investigating fire simulation for the purposes of risk assessment, to support the development of two major fire management systems, WFDSS and the Fire Planning Analysis (FPA). The Fire Spread Probability model (FSPro) is used in WFDSS to estimate the probability of impact of an ongoing large fire. A similar model, FSIM, is used to estimate burn probability and variability in fire behavior across large landscapes.

There is no doubt that through his scientific contributions, Finney has greatly improved our understanding of fire behavior and advanced wildland fire science worldwide.

Dr. Finney is out of the country and his award will be presented at a later date.

Analysis of how precipitation affects wildfire occurrence

analysis precipitation wildfires

Researchers have developed a fancy graphic presentation that explores the relationship between precipitation and the annual area burned in the Western United States. You should check it out.

They concluded that weather conditions DURING the fire season, humidity and rain, have far more effect on total acres burned than winter snow.

The figures and text (below) here are excerpts from the document.

“Wildfires have been increasing: but why? Is it the effect of increasing temperatures? Declining snowpack? Decreasing precipitation? In their recent paper, “Decreasing fire season precipitation increased recent western US forest wildfire activity,” Zachary Holden and his co-authors explore the relative influence of these factors. They first identified the variables related to temperature, snow, and precipitation that best predicted area burned:

“Temperature: vapor pressure deficit [VPD] (the difference between the maximum amount of water the air can hold and the amount it actually holds)

“Snow: maximum annual snow water equivalent [SWE], and

“Precipitation: wetting rain days [WRD], days with more than 1/10 inch of rain, in the months of May through September.”

analysis precipitation wildfires

analysis precipitation wildfires

analysis precipitation wildfires


Analysis of 865 fatalities on wildfires in Southern Europe

fatalities wildfires southern Europe

A paper published in January describes an analysis of 865  civilian and firefighter fatalities in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Sardinia (Italy) from 1945 through 2016. They found that 77 percent of the fatalities occurred in the months of July, August, and September, and that Sardinia (a large Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea) had the highest rate of fatalities based on their population, 10.01 per million inhabitants.

The leading cause of death was burns and suffocation, followed by health problems including heart attacks, physical trauma, respiratory problems, and exhaustion. Next was aviation accidents and then terrestrial accidents.

All of the images shown here are from the research paper.

fatalities wildfires southern Europe


fatalities wildfires southern Europe

A surprisingly high number of fatalities were the result of aviation accidents. Here is an excerpt from the document:

Aircraft-crew fatalities are not negligible, particularly in Spain, where 72 out of the total 96 fatalities reported occurred. This is alarming, although it can be explained to some extent by the heavy use of aerial-firefighting resources in Spain when compared, for example, to Portugal. Aerial firefighting is also heavily applied in Greece, although fatalities in this country are not just the result of the number of flying hours, but also of a host of other parameters still to be investigated and described by specialists. Indeed, an evaluation and a comparison between countries of these other parameters and operational protocols are needed.


fatalities wildfires southern Europe


fatalities wildfires southern Europe

Authors of the paper: Domingo M. Molina-Terre´n, Gavriil Xanthopoulos, Michalis Diakakis, Luis Ribeiro, David Caballero, Giuseppe M. Delogu, Domingos X. Viegas, Carlos A. Silva, and Adria´n Cardil.