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Northern Research Station
One Gifford Pinchot Drive
Madison, WI 53726
(608) 231-9318
(608) 231-9544 TTY/TDD

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Sustaining Forests

Science to support the National Fire and Fuels Strategy


The Northern Research Station’s (NRS) Fire R&D Program is built upon the framework established by the USDA Forest Service’s Wildland Fire and Fuels Research and Development (WFFRD) Strategic Plan – a 10-year plan (through 2015) that outlines a national fire research and science application program to meet the needs of land managers, stakeholders, and other clients.  The plan identifies four research portfolio areas for organizing fire research and product development activities in the agency:  (1)  Core Fire Science (science to improve our understanding of combustion processes, fuels, fire weather, fire behavior, and fire transitions); (2)  Ecological and Environmental Fire Science (science to improve our understanding of the interactions among fire, other natural disturbance processes, and the physical and biological components of ecosystems and the environment);  (3)  Social Fire Science (science to improve our understanding of the social and economic dimensions of fire and fuels management);  and (4)  Integrated Fire and Fuels Management Research  (landscape analysis and integrated interdisciplinary research to quantify the interacting effects of management strategies on ecology, environment, and society).

The NRS conducts research and develops new products within each of these portfolio areas to address both national and regional fire issues relevant to forest ecosystems in the Midwest and Northeast.  The regional issues include relatively high rural human populations intermingling with forested systems; air-quality concerns related to the use of fire for fuels management; several ecosystems historically disturbed by fire now losing fire-dependent biodiversity after decades of effective fire suppression; and some highly flammable ecosystems inhabited by citizens largely unfamiliar with fire risk and disturbance. 


Selected Research Studies

[image:]logo of the North Atlantic Fires Science ConsortiumWitness Trees as Indicators of Past Fire
Understanding and mapping presettlement fire regimes is vitally important for ecosystem restoration, helping ensure the return of fire into ecosystems that formerly burned.  Witness trees can support this endeavor by serving as pyro-indicators of the past. 


[photo:]  Oak stand after treatmentHerbicide and Prescribed Fire Treatments in Shelterwood Stands
We initiated a project to examine the effectiveness of a heavy shelterwood harvest, in combination with an herbicide application followed by prescribed fire on oak regeneration, at four study sites in southern Ohio. It was the first study to test the effectiveness of the combined use of herbicide and fire.


[image:]logo of the North Atlantic Fires Science ConsortiumNorth Atlantic Fire Science Consortium
We developed a computer model to help fire managers evaluate and improve the deployment of wildfire suppression resources. Our model optimizes both seasonal deployment and daily dispatch decisions.


Collecting dataForest Inventory and Analysis
The Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program of the USDA Forest Service has been monitoring the nation`s forest resources for more than 75 years. The program`s systematic, geo-referenced, multi-phase inventory represents the most comprehensive, consistent, and current assessment of US forests available. The FIA inventory is well-suited to provide answers to the multitude of fire and forest management questions.



PhotoEastern Area Modeling Consortium
The Eastern Area Modeling Consortium (EAMC) is a multi-agency coalition of researchers, fire managers, air-quality managers, and natural resource managers at the federal, state, and local levels. As part of this group, NRS researchers are working to (1) increase understanding of fire behavior and smoke dispersion; (2) expand knowledge of the physics of fire-atmosphere interactions; (3) enhance prediction and response to the dangers of prescribed fires and wildfires; and (4) develop products and transfer new technologies related to national and regional fire-weather and air-quality dynamics. In addition, the EAMC provides two types of weather products for fire managers: maps showing current and future weather patterns over various regions of the United States and time series products indicating likely weather changes in at a given location over a 48-hour period.


[photo:]  Red maple stem heating experiment.Fire Effects in Eastern Forests
Understanding fire effects requires consideration of the processes by which the effects occur.  We are applying process-based (mechanistic) approaches to modeling fire effects on endangered Indiana bats and fire-caused tree injury and mortality.  Fires pose risks for bats but also provide opportunities for improving bat roosting habitat, our project considers both sides of the problem. 


image placeholderFire-Danger Rating System for Pine Barrens
The 1.1-million-acre New Jersey Pine Barrens are 22% of the land area of New Jersey and the largest area of open land along the Atlantic Seaboard. It is characterized by highly volatile fuels. Historically, the fire-return cycle as 25 years and large 100,000+ acre fires were common prior to fire suppression practices. We will take a multi-discipline approach to improve the fuel model in order to provide a more-accurate fire-danger rating system specific to the Barrens. There are also pine barrens ecosystems on Long Island, New York, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts.


[photo:] Moderate-intensity surface fire in mixed-oak forestEcosystem Management Study: Restoration of Mixed-oak Forests with Prescribed Fire
Historically, fire was a frequent disturbance process in the mixed-oak forests of the central hardwoods region. Fire control has altered forest structure and composition. Forests are more dense and the sustainability of oak and hickory dominance is now threatened by an abundance of shade-tolerant and fire sensitive tree species such as red maple, sugar maple, and beech. Prescribed fire has been advocated to promote and sustain open-structured mixed-oak forests and the plants and animals that have adapted to these communities. However, long-term research on fire effects is lacking.


[photo:]  Sugar Maple Decline on the unglaciated Allegheny Plateau in northern PennsylvaniaSite, Stress, Nutrition, and Forest Health Interactions
A range of stressors including defoliating insects, pathogens, droughts, inadequate soil base cations, and changing climate have interacted to affect the health and regeneration of selected northern and central hardwood forest species. In the 1980s and 1990s sugar maple dieback and mortality was extensive across the unglaciated Allegheny Plateau in northern Pennsylvania. 


[image:]   Burned area determined from multiple infrared heat release images taken from an aircraft during a prescribed fire in the Ohio Hills.Fuels and Fire Behavior in Eastern Hardwoods
An ability to predict fuel loads and fire behavior are needed to improve prescriptions for prescribed fire and answer questions about smoke emissions and transport and fire effects on flora and fauna. Our fuels and fire behavior research seeks to develop process-based (mechanistic) approaches to predicting fuel characteristics and fire behavior, with particular focus on hardwoods in Appalachian topography.


[photo:] Redring milkweed (Asclepias variegata), growing in an Ohio mixed-oak forest after repeated prescribed fires.Plant Diversity in Managed Forests
The great majority of plant diversity in forests is contained in the herbaceous layer, comprised of both herbaceous and woody species.  We seek a better understanding of how forest management activities affect plant diversity.  NRS-2 scientists are investigating the direct and indirect effects of timber harvesting, prescribed burning, herbicide application, and deer browsing (alone and in combination) on plant composition and diversity in mixed oak, Allegheny, and Northern Hardwood forests.


PhotoFuels Monitoring
Systematic assessments of fuel loading and fire risk across all forests, nationwide, do not exist. Our goal is to collect such data so that it may be used to assess fuel conditions, formulate fire and fuels management policy, and gauge the effectiveness of such policies. Managing fuels in or near areas where people live and recreate requires that managers work with the public to ensure their practices are acceptable. Prescribed burning, which helps control understory vegetation and ground fuels, and thinning, which removes some vegetation from forested land, are common practices that reduce the amount of flammable material in the forest. Both elicit wide-ranging reactions from people. We study these perceptions and recommend actions to help increase the acceptability of fuel management efforts.


Fire risk mapDecision Analysis Tools
Our scientists are exploring what factors within natural ecosystems affect fire risk. This information can then be linked with information on where people live to create maps indicating what geographic areas are most vulnerable to wildfire damage. Other efforts are directed at learning when and where fuel reduction efforts should be applied to obtain the greatest fire risk reductions at the lowest cost and determining the ecological and social consequences of these treatments.


Last Modified: 03/11/2016