Research and Publications

Creating boundary objects supports knowledge co-development processes: A case study evaluation from the Colorado Front Range

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This qualitative case study evaluates manager and researcher perceptions of the impact of a place-based, collaborative knowledge co-development process and examines the outcomes of that co-development for changes to management approaches. The USDA Forest Service (Forest Service) Rocky Mountain Research Station General Technical Report 373 (GTR-373) is a codeveloped science synthesis that functions as a boundary object providing a framework for planning, designing, and implementing management action for restoration of ponderosa and dry mixed-conifer forests. The process of creating and socializing the GTR-373 framework fostered continual knowledge exchange and engagement between researchers and managers across different organizations and levels of decision-making. This built trust in the information, improved justification for management action, developed a common foundation for cross-boundary implementation, and increased communication. The framework has been applied across jurisdictions and has been used as a foundational tool for training staff and designing projects. However, adapting the GTR-373 framework across scales remains challenging.

How will future climate change impact prescribed fire across the contiguous United States?

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In this study, we combine climate projections with information on prescribed burning windows for ecoregions across the contiguous United States (CONUS) to compute the number of days when meteorological conditions allow for the safe and effective application of prescribed fire under present-day (2006–2015) and future climate (2051–2060) conditions. The resulting projections, which cover 57% of all vegetated area across the CONUS, indicate fewer days with conditions suitable for prescribed burning across ecoregions of the eastern United States due to rising maximum daily temperatures, but opportunities increase in the northern and northwestern United States, driven primarily by rising minimum temperatures and declining wind speeds.

Fire suppression makes wildfires more severe and accentuates impacts of climate change and fuel accumulation

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Fire suppression is the primary management response to wildfires in many areas globally. By removing less-extreme wildfires, this approach ensures that remaining wildfires burn under more extreme conditions. Here, we term this the “suppression bias” and use a simulation model to highlight how this bias fundamentally impacts wildfire activity, independent of fuel accumulation and climate change. We illustrate how attempting to suppress all wildfires necessarily means that fires will burn with more severe and less diverse ecological impacts, with burned area increasing at faster rates than expected from fuel accumulation or climate change. Over a human lifespan, the modeled impacts of the suppression bias exceed those from fuel accumulation or climate change alone, suggesting that suppression may exert a significant and underappreciated influence on patterns of fire globally. Managing wildfires to safely burn under low and moderate conditions is thus a critical tool to address the growing wildfire crisis.

Reducing fire risk to homes: A how-to factsheet

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Step by step home hazard assessment, preparedness, and evacuation options.

Managing fire response and public communication to support risk-based decisionmaking

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In response to this event, Rocky Mountain Research Station’s (RMRS) fire management specialist Brad Pietruszka and colleagues wanted to understand how often fires like the Tamarack Fire occur, the driving factors behind the initial decisions in those fires, and, in turn, how they may feed the “let burn” misperception. With perspective as a fire manager, Pietruszka suspected a communication failure; and as a researcher, he turned to empirical research to investigate this question. “We wanted to see how often this type of outcome has occurred to understand what may be informing the ‘let burn’ dialogue,” Pietruszka says.

Centering socioecological connections to collaboratively manage post-fire vegetation shifts

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Climate change is altering fire regimes and post-fire conditions, contributing to relatively rapid transformation of landscapes across the western US. Studies are increasingly documenting post-fire vegetation transitions, particularly from forest to non-forest conditions or from sagebrush to invasive annual grasses. The prevalence of climate-driven, post-fire vegetation transitions is likely to increase in the future with major impacts on social–ecological systems. However, research and management communities have only recently focused attention on this emerging climate risk, and many knowledge gaps remain. We identify three key needs for advancing the management of post-fire vegetation transitions, including centering Indigenous communities in collaborative management of fire-prone ecosystems, developing decision-relevant science to inform pre- and post-fire management, and supporting adaptive management through improved monitoring and information-sharing across geographic and organizational boundaries. We highlight promising examples that are helping to transform the perception and management of post-fire vegetation transitions.

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Smoke 101 and differences between wildfire and prescribed fire smoke in the western U.S.

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An often-overheard phrase, “there is no future without smoke,” describes fire, and associated smoke, as an ecological process inextricably tied to Western forests. While fire can provide many benefits such as reducing fuels and renewing forests, smoke from fires poses a serious challenge to public health, land managers, and air quality regulators. So, can we reduce these challenges?

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Optimizing the implementation of a forest fuel break network

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We hypothesized that linear projects were more efficient at intercepting individual fire events over larger spatial domains, whereas radial projects conferred a higher level of network redundancy in terms of the length of the fuel break exposed to fires. We simulated implementation of the alternative project geometries and then examined fuel break-wildfire spatial interactions using a library of simulated fires developed in prior work. The results supported the hypothesis, with linear projects exhibiting substantially greater efficiency in terms of intercepting fires over larger areas, whereas radial projects had a higher interception length given a fire encountered a project. Adding economic objectives made it more difficult to obtain alternative project geometries, but substantially increased net revenue from harvested trees. We discuss how the model and results can be used to further understand decision tradeoffs and optimize the implementation of planned fuel break networks in conjunction with landscape conservation, protection, and restoration management in fire prone regions.

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Drought triggers and sustains overnight fires in North America

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We examined the hourly diurnal cycle of 23,557 fires and identified 1,095 overnight burning events (OBEs, each defined as a night when a fire burned through the night) in North America during 2017–2020 using geostationary satellite data and terrestrial fire records. A total of 99% of OBEs were associated with large fires (>1,000 ha) and at least one OBE was identified in 20% of these large fires. OBEs were early onset after ignition and OBE frequency was positively correlated with fire size. Although warming is weakening the climatological barrier to night-time fires6, we found that the main driver of recent OBEs in large fires was the accumulated fuel dryness and availability (that is, drought conditions), which tended to lead to consecutive OBEs in a single wildfire for several days and even weeks. Critically, we show that daytime drought indicators can predict whether an OBE will occur the following night, which could facilitate early detection and management of night-time fires. We also observed increases in fire weather conditions conducive to OBEs over recent decades, suggesting an accelerated disruption of the diurnal fire cycle.

Synthesis/Technical Report icon

A meta-analysis of thinning, prescribed fire, and wildfire effects on subsequent wildfire severity in conifer dominated forests of the Western US

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Increased understanding of how mechanical thinning, prescribed burning, and wildfire affect subsequent wildfire severity is urgently needed as people and forests face a growing wildfire crisis. In response, we reviewed scientific literature for the US West and completed a meta-analysis that answered three questions: (1) How much do treatments reduce wildfire severity within treated areas? (2) How do the effects vary with treatment type, treatment age, and forest type? (3) How does fire weather moderate the effects of treatments? We found overwhelming evidence that mechanical thinning with prescribed burning, mechanical thinning with pile burning, and prescribed burning only are effective at reducing subsequent wildfire severity, resulting in reductions in severity between 62% and 72% relative to untreated areas. In comparison, thinning only was less effective – underscoring the importance of treating surface fuels when mitigating wildfire severity is the management goal. The efficacy of these treatments did not vary among forest types assessed in this study and was high across a range of fire weather conditions. Prior wildfire had more complex impacts on subsequent wildfire severity, which varied with forest type and initial wildfire severity. Across treatment types, we found that effectiveness of treatments declined over time, with the mean reduction in wildfire severity decreasing more than twofold when wildfire occurred greater than 10 years after initial treatment. Our meta-analysis provides up-to-date information on the extent to which active forest management reduces wildfire severity and facilitates better outcomes for people and forests during future wildfire events.

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