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.

Fitness tracking data from about 30,000 people used to determine travel rates on slopes

Researchers hope to use the information to help wildland firefighters find the best escape routes

Firefighters Whitetail Fire Black Hills
Firefighters on the Whitetail Fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota, March 8, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Fitness tracking data from 29,928 individuals representing 421,247 individual hikes, jogs, and runs on trails in and around Salt Lake City was used to calculate travel rates on slopes. Researchers hope their findings can be used to help develop a smart phone app that would suggest to wildland firefighters the best escape route if faced with a possible entrapment.

Funding provided by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Science Foundation, helped Michael J. Campbell (Fort Lewis College), Philip E. Dennison (Univ. of Utah), Bret W. Butler (USFS), and Wesley G. Page (USFS) complete the research which is summarized in their paper, “Using crowdsourced fitness tracker data to model the relationship between slope and travel rates.”

They undertook the study basically because it had not been done before using a large amount of raw foot travel data and the information is needed to develop an app that can enhance the situational awareness of firefighters. Some preliminary work was done two years ago by some of the same researchers. They used Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology to analyze the terrain slope, ground surface roughness and vegetation density of a fire-prone region in central Utah, and assessed how each landscape condition impeded a person’s ability to travel. At the time, Department of Geography professor and co-author of that study, Philip Dennison, said, “Finding the fastest way to get to a safety zone can be made a lot more difficult by factors like steep terrain, dense brush, and poor visibility due to smoke. This new technology is one of the ways we can provide an extra margin of safety for firefighters.”

The researchers felt they needed more accurate travel rate data to build on their previous work to calculate the best escape routes.

The data used in this study were obtained from Strava, a popular fitness tracking and social networking app that allows users to track their movement while hiking, running, and cycling using GPS on phones or fitness tracking devices to compare their travel rates to their peers. The company aggregates and anonymizes the data and makes them available to planning organizations and researchers. The information used in the study represents hiking, jogging, or running a combined 81,000 miles.

“This will revolutionize our understanding with how terrain affects pedestrian movement,” said Michael Campbell, assistant professor at Fort Lewis College and lead author of the study. “From a firefighter perspective, under normal conditions a fire crew may have ample time to hike to a safety zone, but if the sh*t hits the fan, they’re going to have to sprint to get there. We tried to introduce predictive flexibility that can mimic the range of conditions that one might need to consider when estimating travel rates and times.”

“Calculating how quickly people move through the environment is a problem more than a century old. Having data from such a large number of people moving at all different speeds allowed us to create much more advanced models than what’s been done before,” said Phil Dennison. “Any application that estimates how fast people walk, jog, or run from point A to point B can benefit from this work.”

firefighter travel times slope
From the study. Click to enlarge.

According to the results of the study, a slow walk on a flat, 1-mile (1.6 km) trail takes about 33 minutes on average, whereas that same level of exertion on a steep, 30 degree slope will take about 97 minutes. On the other end of the spectrum, a fast run on a flat, 1-mile trail takes about six minutes, as compared to 13 minutes up a 30 degree slope. People move most rapidly on a slightly downhill slope, and travel rates were faster for downhill than uphill movement. For example, walking down a steep slope of 30 degrees was done at the same speed as walking up a slope of 16 degrees.

“For wildland firefighters, the slope of the terrain is largely what determines the most efficient path to safety, and dictates how long it’s going to take,” Mr. Campbell told Runner’s World. “Our goal is to provide firefighters with the ability to press a button on their phone and not only map the best route to safety, but also provide a travel time estimate.”

Of course hiking times on established trails is not always completely transferable to the situations faced by wildland firefighters. Presumably ground surface roughness and vegetation density from the earlier work will be factored in when developing the app to make the results more realistic.

Starting this month, the geographers will apply their new models to wildland firefighters. During their spring training, nearly a dozen fire crews in Utah, Idaho, Colorado and California will use GPS trackers to record their movements and log their travel rates. This will allow them to better understand the travel rates of the unique firefighter population, who are often traversing rugged terrain, working long hours, and carrying heavy packs.

Researcher finds that Native Americans ignited more fires than lightning

Data was collected in the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains in California

A California professor’s dissertation has won a prestigious award for her work that determined fires 1,500 years ago in the Sequoia National Forest in Southern California were predominantly ignited by Native Americans rather than by lightning. Until the last 100 years or so most forests in the Western United States had far fewer trees per acre than today. Suppressing fires caused by lightning, arson, and accidents has resulted in overstocked forests that can lead to very large wildfires that threaten lives and property and are very difficult to control.

Prescribed fires can over time lead to stand densities that replicate the pre-Columbian condition, but in modern times the practice has not been widely used in the Western United States at landscape scale.

Professor Anna Klimaszewski-Patterson
Professor Anna Klimaszewski-Patterson. (Photo courtesy of Anna Klimaszewski-Patterson)

“We should be taking Native American practices into account,” said Anna Klimaszewski-Patterson, a Sacramento State assistant professor of geography, whose dissertation on the subject recently won the J. Warren Nystrom award from the American Association of Geographers (AAG).

“After all, they are stakeholders who have been here a heck of a lot longer than we have,” she said. “We should probably be looking at their traditions and incorporating them” into forest management.

Klimaszewski-Patterson uses paleoecology – the study of past ecosystems – as well as environmental archaeology and predictive landscape modeling in her current work, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. She won the Nystrom award after presenting her paper at the AAG’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

Using computer models and pollen and charcoal records to track changes in the forest over time, she has found that forest composition dating back 1,500 years likely was the result of deliberate burning by Native Americans, rather than natural phenomena such as lightning strikes. Those forests featured wide open spaces, resembling parks.

More information about the research.

While U.S. administration wants to defund fire science, Canada ramps it up

Canada wildfire research blueprint

While the Joint Fire Science Program in the United States is slated to be defunded by the Administration in the current budget proposal for FY 2020, Canada intends to ramp up their program.

The Government of Canada has released the Blueprint for Wildland Fire Science in Canada (2019—2029).  Led by the Canadian Forest Service, the Blueprint provides a national consensus view of Canada’s key wildland fire research priorities over the next 10 years. It also makes 15 recommendations intended to guide science investments, attract new collaboration, and align national research efforts.  These recommendations are broadly focused on:

  • Increasing national capacity for wildland fire research through new investments into academic programs, public sector science, and postsecondary networks;
  • Recognizing Indigenous knowledge as an equal and complementary way of knowing wildland fire,  to inform future fire management policies and practices;
  • Creating new knowledge exchange mechanisms to improve the way science and technology is shared, understood, and implemented;
  • Creating new multidisciplinary, multi-partner, collaborative research opportunities; and
  • Improving national governance and coordination of science activities through development of a national research agenda and the creation of a national coordinating committee.

You can download the Canadian Forest Service blueprint document here (8 mb).

April 8 is the last day to sign on to a letter of support for the Joint Fire Science Program in the United States.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to LM. Typos or errors, report them HERE.